Daddy Issues: Freud And The Problem With Fathers
Updated: Mar 1
What I find most intriguing about Sigmund Freud is that he was a cultural patriarch who stood for the dismantling of patriarchy and a devoted father who was not particularly concerned with the relational dynamic of parent and child.
In fact, Freud thought that children needed to be brought up as children, by which he meant conventionally.
This left him plenty of time to focus on theories about sex and agression. The story of Oedipus fitted his hypothesis and 'The Oedipus Complex’ cemented his reputation in the field of psychoanalysis.
But I am curious that Freud never gave consideration to another Greek myth, that of Icarus. Whist this story is about defying authority, another Freudian theme, it is also the story of a son defying his father. This is a story about relationships.
It would be left to the next generation of ‘Freudians’ to explore 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 and taken for granted.
I believe the story of Icarus can bridge this gap. 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 there is so much more to it than that.
Daedalus is always portrayed as a benign father and 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 benign, Daedalus can 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 and generosity 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. Perhaps the myth was too close for comfort?
Icarus is portrayed as an ungrateful son who is not particularly interested in his father’s engineering endeavours. But 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 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?
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!
Perhaps the idea of flying to close to the sun is a metaphor for the self-annihilation people sometimes do in trying to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of a domineering father.
Even having 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. But neither escape the legacy of their father.
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