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The virtue of patricide.

By Alan Wall.

‘In art one must kill the father.’

José Ruiz y Blasco.SO SAID PICASSO. The remark is frequently quoted, seldom analysed. The artist’s father was José Ruiz, a painter and art teacher. It is said that on realising the prowess of his son, he handed him his brushes and palette when the boy was thirteen. Thus did mere talent bow to evident genius. No reason to kill him, though, surely?

Ben Nicholson had far more right. His own father, Sir William, a portraitist of considerable accomplishment, beguiled Ben’s young fiancée away and married her. He would also ask of Ben whenever they met if the young man was still designing toilet seats – this being a reference to Ben’s white reliefs containing sunken circles, now regarded as amongst the finest achievements of British abstract art. Ben could surely have been forgiven if he had sharpened one of his wooden brushes into a stiletto, and stabbed his progenitor through the heart, since this really did look like the primal father keeping the fecund womenfolk all for himself, thereby provoking his own fateful slaughter, the one Freud speculated about so freely in Totem and Taboo. But why the murderousness in Pablo’s artistic heart? Is it not enough to transcend the lesser achievements of your forebear; do you really have to annihilate him too?

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The word that now inevitably comes to mind is oedipal, but this is a recent addition to our lexicon, only recorded in English for the first time, according to the OED, in 1932. The nearest adjectives before that date would have been Oedipean or Oedipodean (always capitalised), both relating to the gift Oedipus displayed for solving riddles. And there was also oedipodic, a pedicurist’s term for swollen ankles, which is relevant in its etymological way. But this father-killing business, and the universal psychic necessity it supposedly expresses, is undoubtedly Freud’s contribution, when he finds a new way of reading Sophocles’ play, not as one of the worst pieces of fateful bad luck ever recorded in fact or fiction, but instead as a universal allegory of hidden human desire, the secret murderous wish of every male child to kill the father so as to possess the mother entirely.

It is hard to imagine a Russian iconographer saying that in art one must kill the father. There the tradition, and its continuity, is of the essence. It is only when form is under dynamic interrogation, when art is turning itself inside out, when the new is in radical conflict with the old, that spiritual patricide appears to be in order. Modernism negotiates a crisis of form. The old realism had become, according to Brancusi, ‘a confusion of familiarities’, and the word familiarity is linked morphologically to the word family. So if you want to attack that effectively you will need to go for the head, which is to say the paterfamilias. So shall we modify Picasso’s statement and say, in modern – and certainly modernist – art one must kill the father, because the father still commands that kingdom which represents our ‘confusion of familiarities’? His is the old formality that must be broken up by those excluded from the Salon, the Young Turks of innovation and dissent stirring out there on the street.

Because Cronus had been told that he was bound to be supplanted by one of them, his sons were promptly swallowed by him at birth. Only the infant Zeus was replaced by a stone and escaped. In such circumstances patricide seems a reasonable option, as the only means of survival, in fact. The corrupt tycoon Robert Maxwell effectively engaged in different displays of torture for his sons, preferably in public, and it might have been interesting if one of them had in fact assassinated him to see how plausible his defence in court might have seemed. The revenge most of them took on this disreputable tyrant was to join him in the family business as soon as possible. Jeremy Bamber killed both his parents, together with the rest of his immediate family, but his sole purpose appears to have been the acquisition of a sizeable inheritance by pretending that his schizophrenic sister had been to blame; he killed her too, and left the shotgun in her hand. He is one of the few people sentenced to life imprisonment in Britain who will actually spend the rest of his life inside a prison.

BUT THE QUESTION of patricide is seldom so literal. We are normally looking at those figures who stand in a projected and secondary parental relationship: kings, priests, and ultimately, perhaps, God himself. Bolingbroke after all gets to be king by killing Richard of York, who was occupying the throne at the time. In the sacred wood at Nemi the resident priest had to be cut down by the new arrival, who then took over the priestly powers from his victim. This provided the title for T. S. Eliot’s first book of essays, and also the gory details at the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which merges the details taken from J. G. Frazer with the plot of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here, though, Kurtz has not fallen through the interstices of brute imperialism; rather he represents a living protest against it. He has translated imperial slaughter and mendacity into a personal murderousness which at least has the virtue of being unillusioned about itself. Willard arrives to cut him down. He has been instructed by the military command to terminate Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’. Kurtz sees what is coming. He describes Willard as a messenger boy sent to collect an overdue grocer’s bill. Thus does the inglorious future displace the inglorious past.

Why the murderousness in Pablo’s artistic heart? Is it not enough to transcend the lesser achievements of your forebear; do you really have to annihilate him too?

According to Freud’s argument, God did not make us; we projected from the inner shadows of our psychic machinery a figure cognate with the authoritative figure of the father, but also related to all those other shapes of male power governing our lives. Presumably then, if we have been blessed with a loving father, loving teachers, loving probation officers and policemen, the figure of the deity might appear in our prayers as a vast source of charity. But if not, not. Studying scripture could surely take us either way. Yahweh, as Harold Bloom constantly points out, is an alarming God on more than one occasion. He tries to kill Moses in the Book of Exodus: And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. The defence his wife Zipporah employs, wielding a sharpened flint, involves the blooding of both her son and her husband. Thus does she make of him, as she puts it, a ‘bridegroom of blood’.

We are never told why this should have happened, but then the murderousness of Yahweh does not necessarily arrive bearing any explanations. After all, he decides to wipe out the whole of his new creation only six chapters into the narrative of its very first book, and all we are told there is that ‘the wickedness of man was great on the earth’, and he’d had enough. Angels might have been copulating with the daughters of the earth. Why the animals, reptiles and birds had to be annihilated too remains unexplained. They were presumably no better than they should be, but in their animalistic way, no worse either. This does look alarmingly like the principle of collective punishment.

William Empson’s greatest accusation against Christianity was that it made a fetish of suffering in its ritual and iconography, and that a religion in which the anger of the father could only be appeased by the death of the son was a barbaric one. Now the Trinitarian response to this would be (and has been) that the Son offers himself up for voluntary annihilation in order to counteract the catastrophic effect of the Fall, and the Father accepts this gracious offering; he does not want it, but he accepts it as the only truly redemptive solution to the dilemma Adam and Eve have brought about through their disobedience. The problem is that no modern account of the development of humanity can really posit a ‘Fall’; it is incompatible with all that we have come to know about the development of our species. Even the choreographic skills of Busby Berkeley could hardly have coordinated this scattered species of ours into one coherent collective action which would so reject the will of the Creator. In other words, there was no Adam and Eve; and so our notion of a cosmic inheritance of guilt as a result of their primal sin is the ultimate filial projection.

William Empson. Image: New Directions.So, for Empson, Christianity comes to represent a religion of the murderous father. It has been said that Judaism is the religion of the father; Christianity the religion of the son. This may be so, but the religion of the son is dictated by the created order of the father, nonetheless. One might recall that the last words of Jesus as a living man are a cry to his heavenly father, asking why he has abandoned his only son on the cross.

Empson returns to the theme obliquely in his thoughts on Eliot– ‘My God, man, there’s bears on it’ – in Using Biography. This extraordinary essay argues that the figure of the hated Jew evident in the original version of The Waste Land, before its editing by Ezra Pound, was a displaced figure of Eliot’s own father, who had recently died, and had made provision in his will that in the event of Eliot’s own death, his English wife Vivienne should not inherit Eliot’s portion of the estate, which would instead revert. Empson argues that the Unitarian figure of Eliot’s father, denying the divinity of Jesus while being notably competent with money, has been conflated with a universal semitic persona: ‘Now if you are hating a purse-proud business man who denies that Jesus is God, into what stereotype does he best fit? He is a Jew, of course…’ On this reading, Eliot’s subsequent espousal of Trinitarian orthodoxy was a posthumous killing of the Unitarian father from whom he had been alienated. The poet now becomes simultaneously the crucified son, and the primeval patricide.

IT IS OFTEN easier to make out curious symmetries and patterns in ancient myth than in our own psyches; that was one reason Freud made so much use of them. Berggasse 19 in Vienna was filled with artefacts and images from antiquity. Oedipus occupies a central figure among them. He has two equivalent significances for Freud: he is the solver of the riddle, the one who peers unhesitatingly into the darkness, and he is the slayer of the Old One. One simple enough reason why we might witness the slaying by the son of the Old One, the progenitor, is that he might have had it coming anyway, so best to keep the business in the family. Laius and Jocasta transfix the infant Oedipus’s feet with a rod and send him out on to the mountain to be exposed, so that he will die. Now admittedly this is in response to a revelation from Apollo that if the boy grows up he’ll kill his father, and ravish his mother, but even so: it can hardly be described as loving parental behaviour. The initial murderousness of his father towards him is equalled by his own towards the old fellow when they finally meet again: ‘what goes around comes around’; that is the great mythic principle. The future never can be avoided. Perseus ultimately kills the father of Danae, his own grandfather, by throwing the discus. The prediction of the oracle has come true, however hard the old man tried to evade it by building towers.

We should remember the sequence of events regarding Oedipus: first he kills his father, then he answers the riddle. We could, if we so chose, view this as an early act of demythologization. First we debunk the myth of God, then our eyes are opened. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to their own nakedness as soon as they ate from the tree of knowledge. Oedipus after all discovers the great secret hidden away inside our psyches: the incestuous and murderous desire that lurks in there, two and half millennia before Freud can catch a glimpse. Slaying the Old One, on this reading anyway, can yield certain epistemological benefits. Although we might remind ourselves that neither Adam and Eve nor Oedipus himself end up much happier as a result of their breaching of the paternal boundary.

How oedipal was the inventor of the Oedipus complex? Might he perhaps have fashioned this particular theory out of a complex darkness inside the labyrinth of his own psyche? We know that he was ashamed of his father, Jacob, because he had permitted gentiles to knock his fur cap off in an anti-semitic incident in Vienna. He was also adored by his mother, as was Picasso. Whether or not these biographical data are relevant, the fact is that Freud committed two of the greatest acts of oedipal violence, in cultural terms, of the twentieth century. First he assassinated William Shakespeare, then he went on to kill the Jew Moses, if in this latter case with the assistance of the anthropology of his day.

Sigmund Freud. Image: Freud Museum.First he assassinated the great poet, to whose work he was devoted. He insisted that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon could not have written the works of William Shakespeare. They were written instead, he said, by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This theory was propounded, not for the first time, by J. Thomas Looney in a book entitled Shakespeare Identified, which was published in 1920. Freud read it and was overwhelmed by its arguments. It solved a number of crucial problems for him. He had convinced himself that whoever authored Hamlet had lost his father before composition. This fitted de Vere, not Shakespeare. And at some point he appears to have also convinced himself that the man who wrote King Lear must have had three daughters; once again this fitted de Vere but not Shakespeare. There is remarkably little logic here. Why not argue that the fellow who wrote Othello must have been black with a white wife, or the one who penned The Merchant of Venice a Mediterranean Jew with a daughter who looked all set to marry out? And as for the home life of whoever wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even this expert navigator through the unconscious might have been baffled there, since the queen does not merely marry out; she miscegenates with a member of the animal kingdom, like Queen Pasiphae with the beautiful white bull. All this notwithstanding, Freud became a convinced anti-Stratfordian and could be remarkably acidic towards any who clung to the traditional position.

Harold Bloom speculates in The Western Canon that Freud first started thinking through the Oedipus conflict in relation to Hamlet. He had made it plain in The Interpretation of Dreams that he regarded Hamlet as a return to the theme of Oedipus Rex, after a further two and half millennia of repression. Hamlet cannot actually bed Gertrude, as Oedipus beds Jocasta, because the forces of cultural inhibition had become so much greater in the interim. Bloom reckons that Freud was intimidated by the genius of Shakespeare, which so frequently anticipates him in his perceptions, so he does to him exactly what Hamlet does to Polonius. The Old One gets slain.

THEN, IN THE 1930s, with European Jewry under lethal threat from Nazism, Freud publishes Moses and Monotheism, in which he argues that Moses, supposed author of the Pentateuch, the founding book of Judaism, was not in fact Jewish at all. He was an Egyptian, a follower of the monotheistic Akhnaten, or possibly even Akhnaten himself. All the narrative paraphernalia of the bulrushes, the reeds, the baby in a basket at the riverside, is a baffle for a child born in untoward circumstances, probably to an Egyptian princess. A similar argument had been made many times over the years, often by Jewish polemicists, about the genealogy at the start of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. They are so assertive about the royal identity of Jesus, going back all the way to David and beyond, because of the accusations of illegitimacy that dogged the man from Nazareth. Virgin birth, eh? No father in evidence, presumably.

Now these thoughts regarding Moses were not original to Freud; they were very much in the air at the time. Nevertheless, a number of significant figures pleaded with Freud not to publish, the most notable being Professor Abraham Yahuda, a Biblical expert. A man of Freud’s status, attacking the founding author of the Judaic scripture, would surely play straight into the hands of the Nazis: this religion can be seen to be not merely repellent, but provably fraudulent. Freud would not hang fire. The book was published in 1939, just in time for the commencement of hostilities.

So, two old ones had been slain in two decades: Shakespeare is replaced by a dubious nobleman and courtier, and Moses, author of the founding texts of the embattled religion in which Freud had been raised, turns out not to be Jewish at all. The nearest he gets to being a true member of the chosen people is when Zipporah his wife circumcises their son and scatters the blood on Moses himself, addressing him for the first time as her bridegroom of blood. He is a surrogate; he even has a surrogate circumcision performed by his own spouse, not on him but on their child. Once again, as in the story of Jesus, the blood shed is all the son’s. Father simply stands back and watches.

As in the story of Jesus, the blood shed is all the son’s. Father simply stands back and watches.

We might notice that on both occasions, Freud decides that what the text is overtly telling us about itself is not to be trusted. We must use our canniness as interpreters to get through to the real latent content; all the information is there, but it is not self-disclosing. In fact, it is self-disguising. This does of course mean that the interpreter now becomes an agent in the unfolding meaning of the text, however ancient and revered it might be. The text challenges our hermeneutic power to engage with it. It will only come alive if we give it some of our life, as an invitation into the philosophical dymanic of the present. Bob Dylan once summed up the situation with remarkable brio:

Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’

Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’

God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’

God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run’

Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’

God says, ‘Out on Highway 61’

Now Bob Dylan’s father was called Abraham, and his friends and loved ones knew him as Abe. Highway 61, where the scene of the promised sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham on Mount Moriah is here to be re-enacted, was the road that followed the Mississippi to New Orleans. But it was also just another road out of town. The young man then called Robert Zimmerman fled along that road as soon as he could, eventually landing in New York, where he almost immediately cut off his lineal patrimony by changing his name to Dylan – announcing in effect that he was now no man’s son. Why not be your own father instead?

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=8giVhoQu5I0 width=640 height=390 anchor=]See how close Dylan brings the ancient story to him; that is the mark of genius. Midrash is a technique which makes scripture as personal as a diary entry. It demands that the ancient text answer the questions of the present, or what use is it anyway? One might as well have done and abandon it to the philologists, so it can be buried along with them in a library. Midrash renders any text, however ancient, immediate by translating it into the desires and disasters of the present. A man called Abe from Duluth, Minnesota, had a son named Robert, not Isaac. And God instructed him in the song to take this boy down to Highway 61 so he might be executed, as a way of demonstrating God’s authority. A bizarre story, for sure, but perhaps no odder, all the same, than the one in which Yahweh orders the ancient Abraham to take his own beloved boy to Mount Moriah and there offer him as a burnt offering, a holocaust. Neither boy died in the event. Isaac was replaced by a ram, and Robert Zimmerman found a substitute in Bob Dylan, who wrote the original’s work for him under another name, just as Freud came to believe the Earl of Oxford had done for William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon.

The problem midrash always raises is this: does not the midrashist in effect engage in his own poiesis? Is he not doing to the original material what the poet and novelist might do? Freud was only too aware of the accusation here, and also the implied danger. He told Arnold Zweig that he had initially planned to call the book that became Moses and Monotheism, The Man Moses: A Historical Novel. But then Freud believed he had discovered many of his greatest ‘scientific insights’ in literature, in the work of Sophocles and Shakespeare – or rather Edward de Vere. He did not look upon the literary as a second-class form of discovery. Thomas Mann, one of Freud’s greatest readers, would write The Tablets of the Law a few years later. In this re-telling, Moses has a Hebrew father, but an Egyptian mother, so according to the law of matrilineal descent, he is not a Jew either, though at the time of Moses it was the patrilineal line that dictated Jewish identity. This tale is Thomas Mann’s midrash on the story of Moses, as Fear and Trembling is Kierkegaard’s on the story of Abraham and Isaac.

SO WE RETURN to where we started: the confrontation of the modern with the tradition that preceded it. Let us kill the artistic father and be free. The Dadaists called for the museums to be burnt to the ground; Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska declared that classical sculpture was all wrong. It misunderstood what sculpture was for, pretending that one medium was really another in disguise. Brancusi took Rodin’s The Kiss and re-made it several times in that modernist form which reverts to the earliest art rather than any later realist tradition. The confusion of familiarities is instantly abolished and instead we are given significant form. They are figurative fathers who are here being killed. But we can find an oedipal situation with an actual biological genealogy if we go back one hundred years, and visit Prague.

Franz Kafka effectively invented his own Oedipal father figure in his Letter to my Father, using a great deal of immediately available biographical data to do so. Hermann Kafka was hardly the ideal reader of demanding modernist literature. He does not appear to have been much of a reader of anything, including Hebrew scripture, and his mighty efforts to make a living and maintain it did not leave much leisure for any vivid interest in the arts. But for Kafka he nevertheless becomes the invisible barrier to everything preventing his fulfilment – physically, morally, sexually, and intellectually. He does not read the son’s work, despite an invitation to do so. The actual father, with all his strengths and inadequacies, metamorphoses into an invisible sky god guaranteeing failure and frustration. He would appear to need killing if there is to be any serious progress made. The only problem is that Franz, physically fragile and tubercular, is evidently not the man to perform such an execution. In his fiction, the father always tends to win. Gregor the giant cockroach starves to death, while beautiful music plays in the next room. Georg in The Judgement throws himself into the river after his father has sentenced him to death by drowning.

Pigeons. Jose Ruiz y Blasco.Picasso probably picked up from his father the basic rules of realist verisimilitude, which in its own defence claims to copy nature. Then, once he had proven his mastery here, in his own words he learned to make his art ‘against nature’. His response to the natural was from this point on no longer mimesis but inventive combat. His zestful imagination offered alternatives to the shapes available in the street or the field, not to mention the bedroom and the corrida. Why make do with the repetitions of mimesis when primary creation is an alternative possibility? Why simply follow in your father’s footsteps? You might end up spending your life painting pigeons, as José Ruiz had done. Oddly enough, Picasso did go on to paint the most famous pigeon of twentieth-century art, but he called it a dove, and stuck an olive branch in its beak.

To some extent, we are all still in the sacred wood at Nemi.

Picasso took the brushes his father had handed over and with them re-painted the world of western art. Why imitate nature when you can create afresh? There is at least one sense in which Oedipus owed it all to his father, the Old One whom he will slay: he might be able to answer the Sphinx’s riddle because for a while in infancy he did not in fact walk on four legs, but three. He noticed such things because he had been rendered unnatural, against nature, by his father, who had had both his feet riveted together with a rod, thereby giving him his illustrious name. His Highway 61 was the route from Thebes to Corinth. It was only on his journey home again, his treacherous return into the past, that the catastrophes started rolling. First he kills his father, then he solves the Sphinx’s riddle, and by the time he arrives back at Thebes, a womb is awaiting his triumphal re-entry, since it is the same one from which he originally emerged.

But Picasso does not burn down the museums, though he might occasionally deface a masterpiece or two in his exuberance; the masterpiece is always there still when he’s finished. He does not kill the real fathers; instead he wrestles them, the way Jacob wrestled the mysterious angel some believe to have been Yahweh himself. He takes on Rembrandt, Velasquez, Ingres, Goya. He becomes them on paper and canvas, the way Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village became Woody Guthrie, having now claimed a new patronymic from a drunken Welsh bard. The real father here can never be killed, since his work is too strong for that. One can only be agonistic, furiously agonistic perhaps, but not patricidal.

TO SOME EXTENT, we are all still in the sacred wood at Nemi. The difficulty is establishing whether we should be engaged in killing the Old One, or in protecting his memory. Are we saying, he who made me I shall now unmake, for only then can I be truly free? Or are we saying, you who claim in the form of so many institutions this plenipotentiary power are lying through your teeth? In which case, all that needs killing in this dark wood is the shadow of an illusion, the great shambling beast of our projections. But should we decide to post ourselves as cultural guards instead, then we say, in effect, that the Old One is not the fount of all deception and disgrace, but rather the mighty shape, however incoherent, of what went before us in our great evolutionary and historic journeyings. Perhaps we are condemned, all of us, to an endless dialectic between the two positions. Lord Reith, after years of running the BBC, was asked what system of government he had come to think best. He replied, without hesitation: ‘Dictatorship, tempered by periodic assassination.’

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books. and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.

Note: This essay was edited 7 May 2013 to correct an editing error.

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