I took my ten year old daughter to the second act of Wagner’s ‘Valkyrie’ (in English), part of the monumental ‘Ring’ cycle of operas which Wagner constructed from Norse and Germanic mythology.
When told about the outing, a colleague summed up her attitude precisely: ‘That sounds like child abuse’, he said, while she had threatened to ring the Social Services if I ever did it again.
She was squirming in her seat throughout the experience and regarded it as torture. Despite my annoyance at her fidgeting, or perhaps because of it, her evident discomfort got me thinking. I began to realise that much of Wagner’s story is about a form of child abuse – the way parents make children do things for them and live out their fantasies – and that’s what I had just done to my daughter.
In the story the chief god Wotan has numerous children with mortals and demi-gods in order to produce a ‘hero’ who can win back the all-powerful ring. His antagonist Alberich has a child for the same purpose, while the dwarf Mime raises Siegfried as his son, again to obtain the ring.
Wotan has a problem. If he wins back the ring by force he destroys the contractual basis of the social order on which his power rests. Rather like a father who wants his son to live out the fantasies of glory which are no longer available to him in reality, Wotan needs a child to do for him what he is unable to do for himself (steal the ring). This use of the child as an extension of the parent, I would say, is a kind of widespread ‘abuse’.
Freud writes in passing about the propensity for parents to live out their fantasy lives through their children in his analysis of the ‘Garibaldi’ dream in The Interpretation of Dreams:
“The analysis enabled me to fill in the missing part of the dream. It was a mention of my second son, to whom I had given the first name of a great historical figure [Oliver Cromwell] who had powerfully attracted me in my boyhood, especially since my visit to England. During the year before the child’s birth I had made up my mind to use this name if it were a son and I greeted the new born baby with a feeling of high satisfaction. (It is easy to see how the suppressed megalomania of fathers is transferred in their thoughts on to their children, and it seems quite probable that this is one of the ways in which the suppression of that feeling, which becomes necessary in actual life, is carried out.)”
Freud may have added that the ‘megalomania’ of the father can become a burden for the child. In his analysis of the dream Freud places himself as both a child dreaming of his ‘heroic’ father, and a parent thinking of his children. Something is transferred between the two situations. He names his sons after eminent figures:
- Martin (after Jean-Martin Charcot)
- Oliver (after Oliver Cromwell)
- Ernst (after Ernst Brücke, his physiology professor at Vienna University).
Each were significant to Freud – heroes of one form or another, and thus suitable vehicles for carrying the infantile fantasies of the parent. Moreover in naming his sons in this way, the intimidating figures of Freud’s past became innocuous children. Far from being dependent on them, as he once was, they are now dependent on him.
Wagner adds something to Freud’s account. In Wotan’s mind, his children are not only fulfilling his hidden desires but protecting him from destruction. Wotan and the gods are doomed unless he regains control of the ring. Yet it is in vain that the old man regales against the tide of change. His daughter Brunnhilde lights the flame that destroys him.
It could be said that all uncritical cultural transmission is ‘abusive’ in this regard. There is a sense in which the child, as the vehicle for the parents’ fears and desires, also in effect takes on the ‘sins’ of the parent by being forced to do what the parent was unable to do – live up to the impossible demands of the culture.
Freud was ‘dependent’ on Cromwell to the extent that it was he who allowed the Jews back into Britain after their earlier expulsion from the country under Elizabeth I and other monarchs. Cromwell became a powerful figure for Freud after his first visit to England: i.e. he was dependent on Cromwell for his entry into Britain.