THE TRACE OF THE FATHER
by Joseph Suglia
One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created. One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places. Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.
Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing. Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy. According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency. When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.” The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism. Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism. Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency. One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.
Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe. In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance. For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif). Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact. Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.” In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.
Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level. One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence. Try to destroy the father. Try to erase every trace of his existence. The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.