Dan Jacobs, MD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at BPSI. His remarks below originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the BPSI Library Newsletter, which can be read here.
In Daniel Mendelsohn’s beautiful memoir An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic (2017), he writes of Elpenor’s urgent request of Odysseus:
Don’t go off and leave me behind, abandoned and
unburied and unmourned.
Elpenor is a young sailor who has died under Odysseus’s command. Paradoxically, his cry might also be Mendelsohn’s: that of a son who will be left behind by a father – a father with whom there is a good deal of unfinished business. It is the repeated plea in the books I have been reading: sons asking that their individuality be recognized and a blessing bestowed by their fathers who, in so doing, can help them lay old torments to rest. The fulfillment of that request is often hard to come by, as these books illustrate.
Peter Blos fully acknowledges the difficulties of the Oedipal stage of development. However, his classic contribution, Father and Son focuses on the importance of the early dyadic pre-Oedipal relationship of father and son. He makes clear the psychological disasters that arise if the father is not responsive to the child’s needs during this period. A strong early positive connection between the two helps the little boy resist the regressive pull of mother and aids in separation and individuation from her. He illustrates his point, now well accepted, with clinical illustrations as well as literary analyses. He describes in detail Kaka’s struggles to find the pre-Oedipal father he needed, using the latter’s torturous Letter to My Father as evidence. Blos then turns his attention to Hamlet. While Hamlet’s reluctance to kill Claudius has often been attributed to his Oedipal conflicts, Blos argues that Hamlet’s procrastination reflects his need to keep Claudius alive. While Claudius lives, the young prince is protected from being overwhelmed by his incestuous attachment to his seductive mother. Only when Gertrude is dying, Blos points out, is Hamlet free to slay his stepfather. For both Kaka and Hamlet the tragedy begins with the father who leaves his son’s need for him unrecognized. Blos’s writing is elegant and clear, his arguments persuasive, his devotion to understanding early child development evident in every line.
The failure of recognition of the son’s need for an idealized and protective father haunts the pages of an earlier Mendelsohn work, The Elusive Embrace (1999). In it, he describes a life split between living in Chelsea as a gay single man and being a part-time foster father in upstate New York. Mendelsohn acknowledges his wish to be an object of a man’s desire and repeatedly acts upon it. Once that wish is momentarily achieved, he moves on – breaking the connection and avoiding lasting engagement. Fatherhood seems a somewhat elusive task for him, as it was for his own father.
In An Odyssey, the 2017 memoir, Mendelsohn draws on his experience as a classical scholar to explore further his relationship with his own father. Here, he tells of his 80 year old father’s offer to sit in on his son’s freshman class, devoted to studying The Odyssey. Daniel apprehensively assents, hoping that his father will appreciate him as a scholar and teacher. In class, the old man finds little to admire about Odysseus, repeatedly emphasizing his failings and disagreeing with his son’s interpretations. The differences of father and son are at once amusing and painful. It ends with the two of them, still trying to find common ground, taking a cruise together devoted to tracing Odysseus’s journey. The story of Mendelsohn and his father in search of one another is interwoven with Telemachus’ search for his father and Odysseus’s struggles to return to him. The depth of Mendelsohn’s scholarship, his clear explanations of the structure of The Odyssey and his beautiful translations of important passages are gifts to his readers. His is a tender and beautiful book, despite or perhaps because, while Odysseus and Telemachus appear to be happily reunited, the distance between Mendelsohn and his father is never fully bridged.
At the Montague Book Mill, whose motto is “Books you don’t need in a bookstore you can’t find,” I came upon Father and Son: A Lifetime (2010) by Marcos Giralt Torrente. His account of his troubled relationship with his father won him the Spanish National Book Award. After his father’s death, Torrente found himself unable to write anything else until he wrote about his father. His is a searing and detailed account of caring for his father during a protracted final illness while, at the same time, trying to make sense of their difficult relationship. He writes that one of the temptations of those who’ve suffered trauma is to think that everything will be all right once the wrong is righted. In the face of impending loss, Torrente wrestles with his longing for a better father as well as his anger with and love for the one he has. Torrente takes responsibility for his part in their difficulties: his competitiveness, demandingness and unwillingness to forgive. He makes amends by caring for his difficult, dying father, but only in writing about his painful struggle can Torrente put it to rest. He finds his way to an uneasy forgiveness of them both and, in so doing, restores his ability to write about other matters.
- Blos, P. (1985). Son and Father: Before and Beyond the Oedipus Complex.
- Mendelsohn, D. (1999). The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity; and (2017). An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic.
- Torrente, M.G. (2010). Father and Son: A Lifetime.
Dan Jacobs, MD, is a BPSI Training and Supervising Analyst, Faculty, and Director of the Hanns Sachs Library and Archives. He is the author of The Distance from Home: A Novel (2019), Grete Bibring: A Culinary Biography (2015), Edward Bibring Photographs the Psychoanalysts of His Time (1932-1938) (editor, 2005), The Supervisory Encounter: A Guide for Teachers of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis (1995), several essays on the works of Tennessee Williams and numerous psychoanalytic articles and book reviews.
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