• Richard Hughes

Daddy Issues: Freud, Fathers and Ruffled Feathers

Updated: 6 days ago

There are many intriguing paradoxes about Sigmund Freud; on one hand he upheld the patriarchal values of his time; yet he deeply believed that psychoanalysis would lead to personal liberty. He was a devoted father, yet he showed little inclination in exploring the relational dynamics of parent and child. In fact, Freud thought that children needed to be brought up as children, by which he meant conventionally; this was the 1880s after all.

This left him plenty of time to focus on the unconscious life, 'the inner reality' of childhood fantasies of sex and aggression. The story of Oedipus fitted his hypothesis and 'The Oedipus Complex’ cemented his reputation in the field of psychoanalysis and beyond.

But I am curious that Freud never gave much consideration to another Greek myth, that of Icarus.

Whist this story has all the potential for fantasy interpretation, it is also a story about what actually happens between a father and a son.

It would be left to the next generation, and a branch of psychoanalysis known as object relations, to explore the actuality of parent/child relationships, which we now understand as central to human motivation. But even within developmental psychology the focus is very much on the mother, as primary caregiver. The father meanwhile kind of gets sidelined.

I believe the story of Icarus can help bridge these gaps. Though to begin with we need to unpick some of the more familiar interpretations of the myth.

Within Freudian psychology, Icarus does get assigned his own ‘complex’ but predictably it is used describe an overly-ambitious character.

Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a polymath of the ancient world, who designed a Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to imprison the Minotaur. However, Daedalus lost favour with the King and ended up being imprisoned, along with Icarus, in a tower used by roosting birds.

Daedalus hatched a plan of escape that involved constructing wings out of feathers and wax. In one version of the story, Icarus gets in the way of his father work, ‘his play impeding his father in his labors’. In another, he shows no interest in his father’s endeavours until the wings are created and then he cannot wait to try them on, brushing aside his father’s instructions about not flying too close to the sun .... or too low to the sea. Icarus ignores his Father and soaring upwards, the heat of the sun melts the wax causing Icarus to tumble out of the sky and into the sea where he is downed.

The story has become a metaphor for hubris and a consequence of personal ambition. But I believe that there is so much more to it than that.

Daedalus is always portrayed as a benign father and the message from the story, predictably is ‘father knows best.’

But there is an epitaph to this story which does not quite fit that narrative. Rather than being benign, Daedalus could also be controlling, vindictive and punishing. After Icarus’s death, Daedalus was entrusted with the apprenticeship of his sister’s son, Perdix. But rather than encouraging his protege, Daedalus became jealous of the boy’s apparent skills - Perdix invented the saw and the compass - and in a fury, Daedalus pushed Perdix off the edge of a tower to his death. There were no wings this time.

There is a pathological cruelty to Daedalus which is the shadow of the benign patriarch. At its most extreme, we see this with totalitarian leaders who cultivate an image of fatherly largesse whilst being jealous and vindictive towards anyone who rejects their support or control.

Even with well-meaning fathers, there is often a projection of success and ambition - and with it the potential for disappointment - all of which is rooted in patriarchy and expectations of masculinity. Freud himself was not immune from this dynamic in his own relationships with young men who he saw as his proteges. Carl Jung was known as the 'crown prince'. Their relationship ended in rupture and was never repaired. Freud chose to interpret the relationship breakdown in Oedipal terms; in that Jung wanted to overthrow and kill the father (Freud himself).

An Oedipal interpretation could be applied to the story of Icarus, but with such a deep relational dynamic taking place, it would be amiss not to explore this from that perspective.

If we take a contemporary view point, Daedalus is the self-made man. The hardship and struggle he has gone through will never be fully understood by his son, who have been brought up with comfort and priviledge afforded by his father's success. The self-made man may want the best for his children, he may also resent them and feel jealous that they have had it so easy.

Icarus is portrayed as an ungrateful son who is not particularly interested in his father’s engineering endeavours. But perhaps it is not as simple as that. As the writer David Sedaris explains: 'what do fathers and sons talk about? I never asked, he never offered.'

Just maybe, Icarus had his own opinions? Maybe he was sceptical about this escape plan? After all, even Leonardo da Vinci failed to design a set of human wings that could actually fly. Maybe Daedalus felt threatened by his son's doubt?

What if Icarus's doubt was interpreted as disinterest or ambivalence? Maybe this led to Icarus being told he was in the way, or useless, or not good enough? And what if his tears - and fear - were then ridiculed and dismissed?

Even a benign father can be overwhelming and suffocating. Many a young man has tried to forge their own path. Some make it, whilst others crash and burn. Perhaps the idea of flying too close to the sun is a metaphor for the self-annihilation people sometimes do in trying to break free from a domineering father and a patriarchal system that legitimizes this way of being?

I would argue that Daedalus is a 'pathological narcissist', especially when we consider the story of Perdix. He angrily responds when his point of view is questioned and he cannot accept a different opinion. He experiences his son and nephew as extensions of himself and when they challenge him they are challenging his fragile sense of self. In destroying Perdix and forcing Icarus to jump out of a tower with wax wings, he is destroying part of himself he cannot accept and integrate.

If we follow the myth, the anger and shame Icarus may have felt perhaps explains why he did not listen to those important instructions. Flying towards the sun was not vanity. He was trying to escape his Father.

This act goes against the 'patriarchal pact', which was another of Freud's theories about how patriarchy works and is maintained. When the pact is threatened, the whole structure of patriarchy is threatened. As we have seen over the past 100 years, Marxism, feminism, gay rights to name but a few, have challenged patriarchy as the dominant structure. Icarus represents all of those battles.

One of the most famous depictions of the story of Icarus is by the 14th century Flemish painter Bruegel. It is a curious painting, as the focus is on the farmers in the foreground who continue to go about their daily work ploughing and minding their sheep as Icarus disappears under the waves in a corner of the painting.

There is a Flemish saying which Bruegel would have been familiar with, ‘and the farmer continues to plough’ (en de boer ... hij ploegde voort) which highlights the ignorance of people who are blind to others suffering. We need to look beyond what the story might first tell us. Icarus has been dismissed as vain, but perhaps his fate is a little more complex than that.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Pieter Bruegel (ca. 1558)

Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium


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