Thomas Laqueur

I remember only one occasion when I wished my father dead: in early December 1983. He was 73 and it was less than a year before he died of cancer, a little more than a year after he learned that there was no treatment for his particular neoplasm. I heard him furtively, or not so furtively, whingeing to someone on the phone, to a woman. (I had returned to the small West Virginia town where my parents lived and where he had long worked as a pathologist and was now chief of staff at a veterans’ hospital.) I didn’t think that he was speaking to someone with whom he was having an affair – he was past that – but I did know that she was in every way inappropriate, that he was being self-pitying with someone to whom he ought, in my view, not to have revealed himself. He was being abject: not in, or with, his body as Freud dreamed of his father, but emotionally.

I am not talking about my father in dreams – he almost never appears there – but of him in his ‘real life’. I have a strange photograph of him in that life. It shows three young men dressed in high riding boots and what seems to be Prussian military uniform – white jodhpurs, dark, perhaps blue, gold-braided tunics, a white sash. (The Junker grandees in the von Werner painting of the proclamation of the Second Reich in 1871 were dressed rather like this.) The three look no older than their twenty years. They stand with an easy weightiness on a low flight of stairs bounded by an iron railing. One of them, thin and with perhaps a certain aristocratic insouciance, stands on the top step; the other two are on the bottom step and have both hands firmly around the hilts of unsheathed sabres.

Two things tell us that these boys are not Prussian cadets but students in a duelling fraternity: they are wearing – at the appropriate angle – the small caps that German students adopted in the 19th century; and their hands are covered by white gloves with long sleeves. The boy on the top step, the one without a sabre, is identified on the back as ‘Coco’ (in another photo I have he is seen finishing second in a 100-metre race at the 1931 Burschentag – the Burschenshaft was a student duelling society – in Berlin). The one on the left on the bottom step is identified as ‘Ego’: my father. The year is 1929. The boys are making a statement that they would have expected their parents, as well as strangers, to understand. Max Weber’s mother slapped his face when he came home from university with a duelling scar, taking it as a sign that he was gravitating away from her pietism and towards the physicality and boorishness of his father. I don’t think my father understood his choice to be so stark. He thought, as a letter I will come to in a moment suggests, that he could have the body and the spirit too.

Almost all the pictures I have of him before he came to the United States have a quality of physical comfort and ease in the world: he is with a group of schoolfellows aged 14 or 15 on rocks in the harbour in Hamburg; he is in an open car with a girlfriend; he stands in his Abitur picture with a small group of young men and the headmaster, around a bas relief of a bewigged worthy. The three buttons of his fashionable jacket are done up; he knows he looks good. It is a happy picture of young men born too late to have suffered in the Great War. My father looks as if he is taking pleasure in having graduated during the 400th anniversary of a school that one of Luther’s followers wrested away from the monastery of St John in 1529 and renamed the Johanneum. Great figures of the German Enlightenment had taught or studied there; C.P.E. Bach and Telemann had been music masters during the 18th century.

All this is to make clear that my image of my father before I knew him is of a rather beautiful and physically successful young man. He is anything but abject. My brother has the silver cup he won in a Hamburg tennis tournament. But, more to the point, it is an image of a body that is already embraced by culture, by something elevating, something more than matter. That embrace slackened in the coal towns of West Virginia.

Freud’s dreams, interpretations and memories of his dead father’s body have an entirely different valence from what I have been describing. There is, first of all, the dream of being offered a drink from an Etruscan urn that was, in real, waking life, sitting on his nightstand; the water tasted salty – ‘obviously from the ashes’, he says. He had not yet written about the band of brothers devouring the primal father, but already, in 1900, he could write about the son wishing his father dead, about the ‘dark tidings that reach us in myth and legend from primeval days’, and about the necessity of Zeus castrating his father just as Cronus had eaten his children. (In Hesiod, Cronus castrates his father, Uranus, and then swallows his own children to prevent the same thing happening to him; one of them, Zeus, is saved by a trick and gives him an emetic; he vomits them up and is then held captive in Tartarus. The nastiness of the two stories is the same.)

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