To discuss fathers and their divinization and not mention Sigmund Freud would be surprising, albeit a welcome surprise in some quarters. To discuss Freud’s ruminations on the Divine without mentioning fathers, however, would be nigh impossible. To discuss Freud on fathers, of course, requires a consideration of the multiple roles the father plays in Freud’s conceptual apparatus: model (the one the child wants to become), rival (the one the child wants to overcome), object of desire (the one the child wants to possess), and giver of law (the one the child reluctantly obeys or guiltily transgresses). Although the father appears in each of these guises in Freud’s discussion of religion, Freud tries to privilege and foreground one conception. By attending to other possibilities from within Freud’s own thought, we may arrive at very different understandings of the consequences of divinizing the father.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud asserts, in an equation that Mary Daly might endorse, that each person’s God “is formed in the likeness of his father . . . and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.” He adds that “a longing for the father. . . constitutes the root of every form of religion.” Given the textual proximity of exaltation and longing, the reader could understandably conflate these characterizations, but the distinction between them should become evident when, “at the conclusion” of “this exceedingly condensed inquiry,” Freud “insist[s] . . . that the beginnings of religion . . . converge in the Oedipus complex.”
With its complicated web of competing affective ties, the Oedipus complex traces the ambivalent relations between fathers and sons. Similarly, Totem and Taboo, in its exploration of a “fantastic” hypothesis concerning humanity’s distant past, highlights the hatred and rivalry between the primal father and his sons—driven especially by the father’s violent exclusion of all of the sons from any sexual contact with any of the father’s women—while acknowledging the sons’ “affection and admiration” for their father. Affection and admiration undoubtedly arose from the “protection, care and indulgence” the sons ascribe to their father. But neither affection nor admiration—nor the sense they need the father’s protection—prevents the sons from joining together to kill their father so they can access the women he hoards.
In Future of an Illusion, written some fifteen years after Totem and Taboo, Freud gives the need for protection much greater weight in his discussion of religion and fathers. He emphasizes not the banded brothers’ strength, but rather their helplessness—in the face of nature’s fury, the body’s frailty, civilization’s demands, and the universe’s meaninglessness. “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” One such measure is the “consolation” provided by a strong and caring father. Out of our vulnerability and precarity, a providential and benevolent God is born. Future acknowledges the same ambivalence discussed in Totem: the child has reasons to fear the father, but is also “sure of his protection.” (And this is the reason, according to Freud, that God is imagined as male. Even though the mother is the child’s initial source of care, the father, purportedly stronger, is a source of superior security.) Freud doubles down on this idea in Civilization and Its Discontents: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” For Freud, religion arises out of our need for the father’s protection and “out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father.” Freud seems to treat these as equivalent statements, but we have good Freudian reasons for distinguishing them.
When Freud discusses the various permutations of the Oedipus complex, there is no “protective” option. In the “active” Oedipus complex, which could be equated with “exaltation” or “admiration” of the father, the son identifies with the father and seeks out the mother as a sexual object, thus experiencing the father as a “hindrance,” a rival, and a punishing, castrating threat. In the “passive” Oedipus complex, which could be equated with “longing” or “affection” for the father, the son desires the father and takes up the mother’s role as sexual object, thus experiencing the father as an enabling, castrating force, given the male child’s sense that all women are castrated. Although exaltation, admiration, longing, and affection are all present in the Oedipus complex (and in a slightly different way with slightly different outcomes for the female child), none of its possible resolutions figure the father as protective or caring. The passive Oedipus complex comes closest, but its homoerotic dimension, especially when combined with the homoerotic desire linking the primal band of brothers, stands in marked tension with Totem and Taboo’s heterosexually motivated, founding violence, thus undermining the Oedipus complex’s explanatory value with respect to religion. When exploring Freud’s discussion of fathers and religion, then, it is not the ambivalence between fear and affection that merits attention, but rather the vastly different paternal imagoes that appear in Freud’s writings on religion and his writings on the Oedipus complex.
To sharpen this tension, we should recall Freud’s claim, from his writings on religion, that there is no “need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Freud makes this pronouncement in the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents when considering—and rejecting—Romain Rolland’s suggestion that religion stems not from the need for a protective father figure, but rather from “a peculiar feeling . . . , a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic.’” Freud notes that just like the helpless-protected dynamic to which the father-fantasy responds, this oceanic feeling also has an infantile prototype—a prototype Freud associates with the mother; namely, the infant’s experience of breastfeeding. Nourishment is, of course, a need stronger than the need for protection: one can live with fear; one will die of starvation. When the mother—or other caretaker—feeds the infant, as Freud clarifies almost twenty-five years earlier in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, the nourishment (the need) is accompanied by a rush of sensation: the warm flow of milk down the infant’s throat brings both sustenance and excitation. Naming this stimulation as the origin of sexuality, Freud notes that children are fond of experiences that render them passive—being swung, rocked, thrown in the air—experiences that repeat this initial sensation of being inundated and overwhelmed.
Far from wanting protection and care, it seems that human beings, according to Freud’s wildly counterintuitive understanding of sexuality, long to feel vulnerable. We long, in other words, to become unbound, to once again dissipate into the universe. We do not want—or do not only want—to defend and preserve the ego that has managed to lift itself out of the sea of stimulation; we also want to feel ourselves being pulled under the waves. (Losing one’s sense of self—one’s sense of spatial and temporal orientation—is certainly part of the experience of sexuality, as conventionally understood.) Although Freud surmises that the oceanic feeling could provide a narcissistic consolation by equating the ego with the universe, he still rejects it as the origin of religion because, for him, narcissistic pleasure is not as powerful as anxiety-generated pain, and only the father-fantasy can quell the latter. But when evaluating the respective strength of infantile needs, Freud forgets his earlier account in Three Essays, of the pleasures offered by infantile experiences from which the oceanic feeling purportedly springs. Moreover, when distinguishing the father-fantasy from ego-as-universe narcissism, he fails to recognize that the kinds of consolation they offer are the same: both protect the ego. But only the father-fantasy protects the father.
Twice, in the space of just a few sentences, Freud states that he cannot find any trace of this oceanic feeling in his own experience. To find such a feeling would be to admit to the pleasures of passivity and helplessness—pleasures Freud always struggles to comprehend, whether they present themselves as sexuality or as the death drive. (On the equivalence of sexuality and the death drive in Freud, see Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis and Leo Bersani’s The Freudian Body.) To admit their allure, to confess that one longs for them, would make the father’s form of care, the father’s strength, perhaps the father himself, superfluous (the word Freud uses to describe the mother when explaining the passive Oedipus complex). By insisting that our “oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes” are about vanquishing vulnerability, Freud makes the father—earthly or divine—the answer to our deepest longings. Except, of course, like the patient on the analyst’s couch, Freud always says more than he intends. He tells us, quite willingly and explicitly, that we have other longings.
In Three Essays, the revenant of the milk’s warm flow in our bodies and psyches is named as sexuality and the drive. Across Freud’s corpus, the disruptive drive energy of sexuality is opposed to the order of the ego. Or, to say it another way, from the vantage point of Freud’s writings on religion, and the pride of place they give to the father as protector, the drive and its pleasures are opposed to the authority of the father. Like the primal father’s sons, with their foundational act of violence, Freud must grapple with his guilt for murdering the ego—and so must restore the father’s power whenever it is threatened, even if (perhaps especially when) it is threatened by the force and implications of his own theoretical ruminations. When, for example, Freud “discovers” the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (which, according to Laplanche, is nothing more than a rediscovery of sexuality’s disruptive nature after Freud made it into an ego-sustaining power with his discovery of narcissism), he reconceptualizes Eros not as psyche-shattering stimulation, but as a life-giving force for unification and organization—or, as something like paternal protection of the ego and the ego’s world against the drive’s aggressively destructive impulses.
Even if the ego needs protection, it might not be what the ego most urgently wants. (And, perhaps, it is this ambivalence—between needing and wanting—that merits the greatest attention.) The father’s divinization might not, in other words, be an inevitable and unassailable outgrowth of our infantile desires. It may, in the final analysis, be an attempt to impose a different order of pleasure over and against a constitutive openness to the world’s overwhelming otherness. To make the father a protective law-giver, then, is not just an act of violence, it is the source and foundation of violence. It makes the world and its others hostile enemies by making the ego and its preservation the core of our psychic (and, by consequence, our political, ethical, and religious) existence. Freud’s divinization of the father is the declaration of a perpetual war of all against all.
Thank you for this essay. I was prompted to read it by its title and after being piqued by Liane F.Carlson’s essay on Loneliness and the Limits of Theodicy in Schelling in the current issue of the Journal of Religion. My first, immediate response to Professor Brintnall’s essay is the question, whether we will in America and much of the Anglo-Saxon world ever escape our subjectivism, and being fettered by an apparently indomitable psychologism. It appears we cannot escape the diktat of Freud. Nor can we stop sexualizing everything. I suspect we may never grow up from these infantile preoccupations with me and my psyche and that of others.