- The Tragedy of Fatherhood: King Laius and the Politics of Paternity in the West by Silke-Maria Weineck
Silke-Maria Weineck’s broad yet precise study of the representation of fatherhood in psychoanalysis, political philosophy, and literature has the virtue of making us rethink what we tend to take for granted: the status and definition of the father in Western culture. Weineck argues convincingly that, while the concept of paternity has been used to legitimate certain political, religious, and familial structures, the experience of being a father has eluded our investigation and remains absent from philosophical, political, and literary discussions. Exposing paternity’s lack of definition, Weineck [End Page 633] argues that the “paternal triad” (5) of biological, divine, and monarchical fatherhood, despite its constitutive effect on society and culture, remains ungrounded because no single member of the triad can be said to form the basis for the other two. Instead, the incongruence between the power attributed to the father and the actual experience of paternity gives rise to the “Laius complex,” leaving the father without a voice.
Weineck frames her study with discussions of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, showing that the “father of psychoanalysis” consistently writes from the perspective of the son, leaving his own role as a father, and the experience of fatherhood more generally, unexamined. The other sections of the book seek to cast light on what is perhaps still the dark continent of paternity. The section on ancient fatherhood focuses on Greek tragedy, particularly Sophocles’ depictions of Oedipus and Laius, as well as the figure of Abraham in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition. Here, Weineck’s ability to read ancient Greek and capture the subtle nuances of phrasing in the original language allows her to develop an original interpretation of Oedipus the King that emphasizes the father’s sacrifice of his children in favor of the political entity, or polis. Weineck then contrasts the father in Athenian tragedy with the Biblical figure of Abraham, emphasizing the different types of sacrifices demanded of each. In Weineck’s reading, both Greek tragedy and the Hebrew Bible affirm and, at the same time, undermine the power of paternity by making the biological father subject to other kinds of authority (political and religious). The clear focus of the discussion on paternity allows Weineck to develop new insights about the key figures of Oedipus and Abraham, as well as the somewhat-neglected Laius. At times, I found myself wishing for more elaboration of provocative statements such as: the akedah (binding of Isaac) “does not function as the master narrative that allows us to sacrifice our children. It is the master narrative that allows us to sacrifice, or silently accept the sacrifice of, the children not our own” (75). At the same time, I found the suggestive but not conclusive nature of the book’s insights to be part of its appeal.
The book’s section on political philosophy explores the discrepancies between political, religious, and familial paternity in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and finally, Hobbes. Weineck emphasizes the radical nature of Plato’s proposal, voiced by Socrates, to abolish parenthood in the Republic. She reads Aristotle’s Politics as taking the opposite approach, preserving the father’s power in the home while asserting equality in the political arena. Weineck’s discussion of Hobbes is most ground-breaking in that it demonstrates how he separates “paternal dominion” (121) from biological fatherhood and even gender.
The third major section of the book, containing interpretations of works by Lessing and Kleist, is equally insightful. Weineck reads Lessing’s dramas as situated at the turning point between classical and modern conceptions of fatherhood, as they establish the father’s ethical authority independently of divine or biological justification. Her readings of three novellas by Kleist are respectful of the immense complexity of these texts while positing a unifying factor: Kleist’s “project to undermine all forms of fatherhood” (158). Weineck sees the period of around 1800 as a turning point in the...