“Is your country your mother or your father?”

10.13.2010

Two Kinds of Text

Please feel free to respond, but see if you can keep your commentary moored in the two things we read for today. At least initially. So that we don’t wind up talking about a text that we co-create in the class, as opposed to what your ancient professor has asked you to read.

Fromm and Virgil: Family

The assertion that family is important is the beginning of the conversation. Now we need to take that up in the context of these two texts. I don’t think the issue is the question of whether family is consequential or important, but rather a matter of “how” is family consequential. Just as a quick little example: where Fromm is talking about the process of coming of age, which means moving away from family, in a pretty significant way, what the Aeneid is talking about is a process of coming of age of Aeneas, which is also in some way about moving away from family. There’s a still a universe of things we need to talk about here. There’s tension: we need to understand how that tension functions and works in these texts.

Vietnam and Italy

(Student mentions a story about her brother.)

Frank: Was he [student’s brother] a soldier?

Student: He was a Vietnam vet, yeah.

F: Did that have anything to do with him being part of the family?

S: Well not really, it more to do with him being part of another family…

F: So why did he do that?

S: To be different than the rest of us…he had to establish his own self, and he couldn’t do that with us around.

F: So to establish himself he became a soldier and a part of a larger family, a different family?

S: Yes, and now he’s back with us…

F: The good fortune is that he came back. If he’d gone to Vietnam and was killed, maimed, or disabled for the rest of his life, maybe the choice of the other family would have been a mistake. Maybe if he were Pallas, it would have been a mistake. Whose father gave him to Aeneas in order to fight the war, and he tears himself from the embrace of the father and puts him into the embrace of Aeneas. And what is the nature of that embrace? Aeneas can’t really take care of him. So the new family doesn’t work.

*

Do you remember what Virgil actually says? It’s very poignant. Remember what Aeneas actually tries to do. “Oh father, let me hold your right hand fast. Do not withdraw from my embrace.” And what does he do? He tries to hug his father. Three or four times he tries to hug him, but his hands pass through him. Because he’s really not the father that he was. And then what does the father do? He shows him the future. He defines what responsibility and duty is. Because he’s like the link in the chain of that future. If he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, the chain will be broken. That future can’t exist. So that somehow you become connected to fate, and you’re capacity to choose no longer exists. So that the personal father is no longer available to him. He no longer has a personal father in that particular context. And the only way he can please his father is by doing what? By going to Vietnam. Or in this case Italy.

A Question

Is your country your mother or your father?

Manipulation

Once you separate and the umbilical chord is cut and you’re in the world and you’ve given up what is literally a perfect existence in the mother’s womb, you then have a wound. You’re wounded. Just by the very fact of birth. And you need to then find a new rootedness. And that’s why we take such good care of babies. In some way they’re seriously deprived in the act of birth. And this is replicated in a lot of the mythology. So leaving the Garden of Eden, or so many different myths that depict the rupture into consciousness and individuality. This is a way of construing them.

Now the people that really understand the wounded nature of all people are in a very powerful position. If in fact they can create the cultural constructs, they are then more able to profoundly manipulate and direct those natural desires and energies in the direction of the set of goals that you as a person purse, given what you’re interested it. Fromm has not arbitrarily chosen this as a subject. He is a member of the Frankfurt School. He is a powerful psychologist. He was interested in the political effects of human psychology as they arose in Nazi Germany. His interest in the fatherland and motherland, and matriarchal or patriarchal potentialities that are, on the hand, he would argue are deeply part of individual psychology of any human being who is born, regardless frankly of the circumstance you find yourself. You in the end will find ways to define duty for yourself. You in the end will find ways to define rootedness for yourself. And then the question is: in a larger cultural-political context, how do those in power potentially manipulate you? The Aeneid is the story of a man moving away from family as we conventionally know it, represented by the image of him carrying his father, and walking with his child in his hand, out of the burning city of Troy, before he gets on the ship and takes them to Italy. From that position, all of a sudden his father represents this future, which is completely dependent on him. His son becomes the next link in the chain, to be trained, so he is oriented to that future. And in a way it’s most idealized version of what I just described, is in the funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides. Where basically that oration is a eulogy of the city as a collective entity, far from reality, most people would argue. Then a plea to the people who actually lost loved ones in the first series of battles in the Peloponnesian Wars, to find value in that loss. Related to the fact that that loss was somehow in the interest of something very much like what Anchises basically wants Aeneas to understand as the reason for subordinating every personal and individual impulse he has in the interest of a future history…

The Aeneid is read in lots of different ways, and is a critical text. Probably of more crucial importance than the Iliad for more immediate history, because it begins to deal with representations that are much closer to the representations that we create for ourselves.

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