Fathers and sons

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poet Wilfred Owen described his own times in terms of an obdurate Abraham who had heard. God's first, fatal command but then ignored its revocation: Behold,.

Q J Med 2004; 97:635–636 doi:10.1093/qjmed/hch102

Coda Fathers and sons Oedipus, as everyone knows, inadvertently murdered his father and had sex with his mother. According to the story, he had not seen his parents since infancy, so he could not recognize the man he killed at the cross-roads, nor the queen whose city he saved from a plague, and whom he then married. It is hard to know if people nowadays would be more familiar with this story than they are with any other Greek myth, had it not been for Freud. It was Freud—as everyone also knows—who believed that the story of Oedipus encapsulated a struggle that every child faces in its early years, as it tries to displace one parent in the sexual affections of the other. Translated into evolutionary or neurodevelopmental terms, the Oedipus complex makes a lot of sense. It is a kind of deadly serious dress rehearsal for the later business of finding the best available mate, while remaining realistic about the scale of the competition and the limits of one’s own sexual power. In some ways, however, it is odd that Freud placed so much emphasis on the murderous impulses of small children rather than those of their parents. In the Oedipus story, it is actually the hero’s father Laius who sets the tragedy in motion, by believing a prediction that his son will one day kill him, and by issuing an order for the baby boy to be taken to the mountains and left there to die. The irony, of course, is that Oedipus survives to get his unwitting revenge—which fulfils the prophecy. In reality, parricides are vanishingly rare, whereas infanticides are sadly commonplace. It might be argued that we face a more precariously poised battle with our Laius complexes as adults than we ever did with our Oedipus complexes as children. Many parents would admit to having had to master feelings towards their offspring that were not far short of murderous at times. Even the most loving of parents will probably recall their first shocking awareness of being displaced by a ruthless, rebellious, self-willed infant with determined designs of its own—not on the marital bed, perhaps, but certainly directed at the subjugation of parental needs and ambitions.

QJM vol. 97 no. 9


If it is striking that Freud turned his attention to Oedipus rather than Laius, it is perhaps even odder that he did not concentrate on another story about a father with murderous intent towards his son: that of Abraham. It is a story with an altogether different outcome. Abraham, you will recall, follows a command from God to take his son, his only son whom he loves, to a place that God shows him, to sacrifice him there as a burnt offering. In a narrative of intolerable tension, we hear how Abraham takes his son up Mount Moriah, with a knife and wood for kindling, and binds him on an altar in order to butcher him. It is only at the last possible moment that an angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand, and points to a ram caught in a thicket as a sacrifice instead. (In the biblical passage the angel calls out to him, but in Rembrandt’s depiction of the scene, the angel seizes Abraham’s wrist, thus forcing him to drop the knife out of his hand.) The angel then blesses Abraham as a reward for passing this test of his faith. The correct name for the story is ‘the Binding of Isaac’ but it is often referred to as ‘the Sacrifice of Isaac.’ The mistake may reflect many people’s impression that Abraham’s compliance with God’s initial command is just as bad as if he had completed the act. There are indeed many different ways of responding to the story. Many Jews, Christians and Muslims profess a straightforward admiration for Abraham’s submission to God’s will, regarding it either as exemplary in itself or because it demonstrates Abraham’s utter trust that God will always do the right thing in the end. Most atheists, by contrast, are likely to see in the biblical text yet further proof of a vicious and arbitrary God who—if he existed—would deserve neither obedience nor respect. There is a subtler reading of the text than either of these. It was the reading favoured by some of the mediaeval commentators, who saw the resolution of the story as being implicit from the outset. This kind of symbolic understanding of stories, where time is collapsed and events are seen as synchronous rather than sequential, probably came more naturally to people

Association of Physicians 2004; all rights reserved.

636 before the Enlightenment than it does now. The nearest that we can get to such an understanding these days might be to say that the story is a narrative representation corresponding to our idea of ambivalence. In his heart, Abraham is torn between love for the son for whom he has always yearned, and his wish to destroy an heir who will one day supersede him. His struggle is both internal and external, with a God who is (to use theological language) both immanent and transcendent. Many writers have understood that the story could have gone either way. There are ancient traditions that include the suggestion that Abraham really did slaughter Isaac. And in a more recent reconstruction of the story, the First World War poet Wilfred Owen described his own times in

Coda terms of an obdurate Abraham who had heard God’s first, fatal command but then ignored its revocation: Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, and slew his son. And half the seed of Europe, one by one. As Owen realized, the drama of Abraham’s struggle is an individual one but also a collective, and indeed a universal one. The choice between behaving like Laius or like Abraham is not a foregone conclusion at any time, or for any of us. John Launer