Daddy Issues: Freud and Fathers
Updated: May 12
There are many intriguing paradoxes about Sigmund Freud; on the one hand he typified the patriarchal values of his time and yet he deeply believed that psychoanalysis would lead to personal liberty. He was a devoted father, though 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 uncharted territory of the unconscious and those 'repressed urges' of sex and aggression. The ancient Greek myth of Oedipus fitted his hypothesis and the eponymous '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 Freudian interpretation and is broadly 'Oedipal' in structure, it is also a very human story about the complex relationship between a father and a son.
It would be left to future generations of psychoanalysts, philosophers and phenomenologists to explore the significance of relationships, which we now understand is central to human motivation; but even within developmental psychology, the focus is often on the mother as the primary caregiver, whilst the father kind of gets sidelined, his involvement relegated to emotional and financial support.
The story of Icarus can help bridge these gaps, shedding light on the nuances of the father/son relationship. But 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 amongst his technological achievements, designed a labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to imprison the mythological beast known as 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's 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 benevolent father and predictably the message from the story is ‘father knows best.’
But there is an epitaph to this story which does not quite fit that narrative. Rather than being benevolent, 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 something of the 'malignant narcissist' about Daedalus, especially when we consider the story of Perdix. Daedalus angrily responds when his point of view is questioned and an opposing opinion is seen as a direct attack. He experiences both his son and nephew as extensions of himself and when they challenge him by having their own ideas, they are challenging his fragile sense of self. The malignant narcissist is racked with self-doubt. In destroying Perdix and forcing Icarus to jump out of a tower with wax wings, he is destroying the part of himself he cannot tolerate.
Daedalus’s cruelty is the darkest 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, it can be hard for them to accept that their child is forging their own path, and in doing so, may surpass them and 'fly higher'.
Freud himself was not immune from this dynamic; his protege, Carl Jung, was known as the 'crown prince' however, their relationship ended in rupture just as Jung found his own wings, the relationship was never repaired.
Daedalus was a complex genius, a Steve Jobs of the ancient world. He was single-minded and driven. This makes me wonder, was Daedalus really stricken with grief when his only son fell to his death? Or was he just disappointed by his own design failure?
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 puts it: 'what do fathers and sons talk about? I never asked, he never offered.'
All sons want to impress their fathers, so goes the familiar trope, but maybe Icarus was sceptical about this escape plan? After all, even Leonardo da Vinci failed to design a set of human wings that could actually fly. What if Daedalus felt challenged and threatened by his son's doubt?
If Icarus's doubt was interpreted as disinterest or ambivalence, did this led to him 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?
If we follow the myth, the anger and shame Icarus felt may explain why he did not listen to those important instructions. Flying towards the sun was not vanity or the need for validation, rather he was trying to escape his controlling Father.
This act goes against the 'patriarchal pact', 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 and civil rights to name but a few, have challenged patriarchy as the dominant structure. Icarus represents all of those battles and whilst he did not succeed, the fight continues, we want a different experience for 'fathers', one that is more central to child development.
The story of Icarus also reminds us of just how complex relational bonds can be; those wings cast long shadows and few relationships have a continuous upward projectory.
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. Icarus has been dismissed as vain and self-obsessed, but his story tells us more than that.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Pieter Bruegel (ca. 1558)
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium