DISMANTLING THE OEDIPUS MACHINE: EMPOWERING THE FATHER
Johny ML re-reads the
story of Oedipus to read Shantanu Lodh's
`I Slapped My Traditional Father', a series of eleven photographs
This article is an attempt to read the complex father-son relationship in the light of a photographic work titled `I Slapped My Traditional Father' by the young artist Shantanu Lodh. The series contains eleven photographs that depict the artist and his `real' and `birth' father in a special tea ceremony. The quasi-narrative structure adopted in the series helps the onlooker to comprehend the `story-line' of a very peculiar act that has been enacted in front of a camera with a timer device.
The story line is very simple. An unclothed grown up son (with a visible bush of pubic hairs to accentuate his emblematic puberty) makes a jug of tea and serves his father. The father is fully dressed and maintains an authoritative posture throughout. They sip the tea together and finally both the son and father are seen looking at the camera (at the onlooker) with a sense of accomplishment. To underline the performative nature of the series, the son is seen wearing a heavy jacket in the last snap shot. Besides, a consciously adopted sepia tone of the photographs gives a sense of detachment, making them real and unreal at the same time and also a feeling of displaced temporality.
I do not want to linger on in the interpretational mode for long. The title of the work, `I Slapped My Traditional Father' makes me to approach the work from a different angle. Generally speaking, by reading the title of Shantanu's work one could easily come to a Freudian conclusion that delineates the son's fear of castration by the presence of father and his incestuous longing for the physical union with his mother. Or, one could say that the artist rebels against the patriarchal pretensions and brings them to a submissive plane by confronting it in a denuded manner. But this reading would be too literal to hold the theoretical complexities involved in the work of art. Apart from the weakness of the latter argument, there is a danger of role reversal in which the artist interchanges the patriarchal position by making the `real-birth' father submissive like a traditional weak but venerable and penetrable mother thanks to his old age.
So let the son be a son and father a father. We should take the bull by its horns. Freud had always been an easy tool for the twentieth century theoreticians to bog down all the special sexual moorings of the human beings. Freud, through his couch sessions, came to know how the people of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were suffering from sexual deviations. Freud does not talk directly of any cases where a son expresses his wish to have sexual relationship with his mother or to kill his father to replace him or a daughter craves to share her father's body and fears mother for possessing him. However, one can easily understand the reasons why Freud anchored himself in the island of queer sexual problems. Freud lived in a society, which was forced to keep its sexual adventures under check. It was a society that feared God and believed in `hell for sin' theory. "Freud was preoccupied with sex, conflict, anger, deterrence, and resignation. So, evidently, was the Western world in the first half of this century," observes E. James Lieberman in his paper titled `Why Oedipus Really Loved His Father?'
Caught between the fag end of the classical enlightenment and the crass realism of industrialization the whole of Europe was suffering from a disease of suppression. It was like a powder keg kept near the fire creating a possibility of imminent explosion and disaster. Dissemination of industries, economic depression, rising of a neo-elite and bourgeoisie, imbalanced and displaced revolution, changing colour of revolution into autocracy and ideo-cracy, First World War etc. made the human imagination to run wild at times in depression and other times in hysteric ecstasy. Freud explains why the people fall in depression or maniac behaviors or hysteria. He says that they are the escaping valves that ease out the rising pressure. In theoretical terms Freud calls it `transference'. It is a psychological and biological metaphor making process. One becomes the other or the other becomes the `self'.
A methodical pushing of the `transference' to the edges can easily legitimize the arguments regarding the incestuous relationships in a given period of time. Freud goes back to the Sophoclean tragedy, the `Oedipus Rex' for giving his incest theory a kind of classical validity. True, that Oedipus killed his `birth' father Laius and married his `birth' mother Jocasta. As Lieberman agues, Oedipus was really running away from the fate that doomed him to kill his `father' and marry his `mother'. He was under the impression that his surrogate or `real' father Polybus and `real' mother Merop were going to be the victims of that `terrible' fate. He did not want to victimize his `real' parents. Lieberman raises the ethical issue of whether Oedipus was really a culprit in the killing of his `birth' father Laius and saving his `real' father Polybus. He did not want to marry Merop and the fate made him to marry Jocasta, his `birth' mother. And he consummated the marriage with three daughters.
Freud is not interested in the ethical questions nor is he interested in the base structure of the realities. What Freud sees is the superstructure of the cultural/sexual deviations occurs in Oedipus's life. Launching Oedipus into the field of incest Freud leaves so many question unasked and unanswered. Even if we keep the ethical problem raised by Lieberman and the fatalism involved in the story itself aside, the unveiling of incidents in the life of Oedipus leave further loopholes for redemptive arguments. I would like to take three `spots' from the life of Oedipus: 1. The name Oedipus, 2.the presence of the Sphinx 3.the self blinding of Oedipus.
As historians and linguists say, the name Oedipus connotes the wounds that had been done to the feet of the infant Oedipus by his `birth' parents Laius and Jocasta when they decided to abandon him fearing the curse of the imminent patricide and incest. Oedipus means `swollen footed'. The issue-less couple Polybus and Merop gave the child this name when he was handed over to them by a shepherd. Considering the classical times and its beauty concept the body of Oedipus had a `lack'. It was not full, complete and perfect. Though he was not handicapped, the swollen feet had made him a socially unfit person. We have all the right to think that the sense of chaos felt by the young Oedipus was further intensified by the `knowledge' of his would be `crime'. A young athletic, sporty and courageous man like Oedipus feels `castrated' (here I borrow from Freud) thereby rendered helpless and energy-less by `knowledge' and `lack' at the same time. Holding this as a tool to empower and protect his `parents' he flees. Here confrontation is replaced by absence and silence.
Going against the Freudian fear of castration and the wish for parricide and incest, I would like to propose that Oedipus make a real attempt to save and empower his `real' father by the awareness/knowledge of his own already castrated self. Oedipus when he flees is unmarried. There are no indications that he cherished erotic imaginations for his mother. That means Oedipus is portrayed as a grown up man but has not reached to `manliness'. He needs to be grown as `father'. It is possible only by empowering his own father as an act of self-empowering. Whether he flees for fatalistic reasons or not, Oedipus proves his manliness at the junction where the three roads meet by killing a stranger who later turns out to be his `birth' father Laius. Then he goes to Thebes, answers the riddle posed by the Sphinx, marries Jocasta (his `birth' mother) and sires three daughters. This is the proof of Oedipus `becoming' a man. He in fact grows as a father. Not as `the father.'
Here I wish to take the liberty of bringing the story of Hamlet by Shakespeare to the readers' ken. Hamlet also suffers from `knowledge' and `castration' (not in the Freudian sense). Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, wants to avenge the death of his father who is killed by his uncle, Claudius who conspires with his mother Gertrude to do away with the `father'. Hamlet does not suffer from incest. He feels the `lack' in his education/knowledge that puts him into confusion and lethargy. The apparition of his father tells him the way he has been eliminated. But the yet-to-be-man Hamlet wants to empower his father (ghost). He falls into dilemma. He just cannot testify the truth. But in an act of poetic justice he avenges the murder of his father and gets killed in the act. He grows into a man while eliminating his enemies one by one. His predetermined death is a sense of castration in him. By empowering his father he not only proves his manliness but overcomes his `lacks' also.
The mutual replacement of confrontation with absence and silence occur both in the lives of Oedipus and Hamlet more or less in the same way. Reading against the grain of Freud, one can say that it is not exactly the castration fear and incest for mother drive one to deviations or transference. According to Otto Rank, a disciple and critic of Freud, the child's involvement in the life of parents can be more redemptive than regressive. The child's confrontation with the parents or his/her critical absence (silence) or presence makes them to re-think about the redemptive possibilities. Otto Rank made the commonsense observation of an "anti-Oedipal" tendency in children, namely the wish to keep their parents together when divorce threatens. "Seventy years ago Rank faulted psychoanalytic theory for ignoring nurture in human development, and for pursuing "truth" disconnected from present--real--relationship. Probably most therapists and researchers today view affection and altruism as more important than hostility and competition in human development," observes Lieberman in his thesis.
Coming to the second spot in the story of Oedipus, I am very much curious in knowing why Sphinx (unlike the Delphic Oracle) confronts Oedipus only when there is a catastrophe? When Oedipus reaches Thebes, the city is afflicted by the attack of Sphinx. It will go off only when someone answers the riddles posed by it. Oedipus answers its question and becomes the king of Thebes. I would like to say that the knowledge that enables Oedipus to answer the riddle of the Sphinx comes out of two factors. One, he could overcome his confusion as a person `lacking' in perfection/manliness. Two, he could empower his `real' father by averting the fate. However, the attack of Sphinx comes back in the form of perils and disease once again in the country. This time Oedipus realizes that he has committed the incest. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself and absconds as a wanderer. Then who could be this Sphinx that makes the confrontation a silence and silence a confrontation and at times nullify them altogether?
We need to see the ethical issue raised by Lieberman here again. Despite the presence of the chorus, that is the neutral conscience, ethical voice or the philosophical interventionist voice of the author himself, Sphinx here acts an instrument of deliverance and redemption. As a counter fate the Sphinx leads Oedipus to success, then to realization, though it gives him a perverse redemption. Oedipus decides to blind himself for not seeing his daughters/sisters, wife/mother and also the capabilities that helped him to empower his `real' father, Polybus. Oedipus, through that act, perhaps wants to go back to his youthfulness sans `manliness'. Eternity of blindness for Oedipus is a kind of reversal of history.
`I Slapped My Traditional Father' becomes much clear as we hold the photographic series against the propositions made in the section of this paper. Slapping of the traditional father need not necessarily be an Oedipal issue as set by Freud. Slapping a father is an uncommon act and thanks to the `uncanny' feelings that the action evokes so it could easily be dubbed as an act of rebellion against the patriarchal authority. But a closer look at the photographic series makes one aware that the artist does not intend to establish an anti-patriarchal stance. In fact, Shantanu seems to be on his way to empower a collapsing father. To this end he uses two sociological elements, namely the bodies of the artist and his father and a tea ceremony.
Body is an index that functions as a receptacle of the inscriptions of the sociological events within itself. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the artist's body is marked by a tuft of pubic hair. But his act of making tea for the grand patriarch (here the birth and real father) and the act of serving posits the artist to a secondary position, which starkly tells the onlooker of his yet to be realized `manliness'. The assertive phallus and the pubic clump reveal that the body is not castrated and the artist is least bothered about a `possible' castration from his father. However, the `lack' is seen in terms of his subservience. Meanwhile, the father's body is straight, authoritative, clothed and cultured except for the weakness that his postures emphasis as a mute actor of the ongoing ceremony.
I do not want to talk about the `natural' (nude) body of the artist and the `cultural' (clothed) body of the father. Instead, I would like to talk about the confrontation between the son and the father. This confrontation is happening in silence. And if at all something is absent, that is the presence of the absence of the mother. As I mentioned before, this absence makes a strong dialogue with the father (patriarch), the power relationships between a young son and an old father (or between a wife and a husband). But this confrontation occurs in a fluid and exchangeable structure. As the designer and the prime mover of the whole narrative of action, the artist subverts the predetermined positioning of son and father. Artist assumes three different selves in due course of the action. While retaining his own self, he transforms his self between the fixed identities of `father' and `mother'. In other words, Shantanu takes up an authorial position, a reader's place and forwards a critical stance at the same time. It is not an elaboration of the Freudian preconceptions.
The confrontation of three selves takes through a medium of silence. But here in this photographic series the silence is given a social form, that is the tea serving ceremony. In its own right, tea replaces the verbal language with a gestural one. This linguistic structure is secretive, ritualistic and has a special esoteric value in home making. In other words, the artist finds an extra medium (besides photography) to create a Hermitic linguistic structure in the tea serving ceremony. It resists the power of communication and allures the onlooker into conscious act of decoding the gestural linguistics. Umberto Eco says "Hermetic thought transforms the whole world theatre into a linguistic phenomenon and at the same time denies language any power of communication".
Freudian interpretation of Oedipus complex comes into play in any literary or artistic product only when they profusely express the sentimentality of the artist or the characters. Shantanu, in his work deliberately avoids the sentimental aspect of a ritual. Though the `presence of the absence of a mother' is strongly felt in the series, it is altered dexterously for the purpose of the artist, that is empowering the father with the consciousness, perhaps of the son's growth as an artist. This `empowering the father' act in turn helps the artist to achieve his `manliness' as I have argued in the second section of this article. Re-emphasizing of the performative value through the clothing of the artist in the last snap shot further reduces the sentimentality of the work. The series functions purely in an intellectual plane where the mother's sexuality is brought into play quite indirectly, not as something to be desired by the son through the elimination of the father.
True that in the dark recesses of the human mind everyone keeps an incestuous desire for the parents. The more one pretends to be cultured the more it takes a backseat. However, when the cultural pretensions are over at least for a moment of weakness, incestuous hallucinations occur. Freud talks about transference and we live perhaps, in perpetual act of transference. But it does not mean that any work of art produced has an undercurrent of the Freudian incest. I would like to say once again that Shantanu's `I Slapped My Traditional Father' is not an illustration of an Oedipal problem. As a methodological tool, I myself too have used the same Oedipus story to say that it is an act of empowering the `real' (here it is `birth' also) father thereby empowering oneself. Then the case of `fatalism' involved in the Oedipus and Hamlet case histories .No critic can help that. Can you?