First, a passage from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, regarding Comedy.
“The obstacles to the hero’s desire, then, form the action of the comedy, and the overcoming of them the comic resolution. The obstacles are usually parental, hence comedy often turns on a clash between a son’s and a father’s will…. There is one scene in Plautus where a son and father are [wooing] the same courtesan….”
This traditionally comic situation forms the center of a very dark novel—Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Fyodor Karamazov and his son Dmitri are rivals over the same woman, Grushenka.
A similar transmutation of light into dark can be seen in another very dark, very heavy work: King Lear is very much the senex iratus of old comedy, the Angry Old Man who serves as an “obstacle” figure—and whose humiliation comprises the climax of the comedy. Isn’t the tragic action of Lear this very humbling process—the raving, the rags, the low company, the flowers in the hair—presented, not from the perspective of the young hero and heroine, but from the perspective of the senex? Gloucester, too, is another senex who is humiliated and cast out. The “blocked” characters here are Lear’s ungrateful daughters and Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund. In comedy, the playwright would present these characters and their desires sympathetically. A simple shift of focal point inverts the very nature of the story. In Lear as in Karamazov, tragedy is comedy turned inside out.
While we’re on the subject of father-figures, we might as well complete this lineage and talk about Oedipus Rex. This European father-fixation seems to antedate the import of God-the-Father from Near Eastern monotheism. (Zeus was called “Father Zeus,” let us not forget.) Now Freud has complicated discussion of Oedipus by convincing some (but by no means all) people that the “Oedipal complex” is some kind of universal psychological characteristic. I think Freud’s assertion to this effect, and his attempt to present the parricide-wish as normal, is part of a historical transformation that can be traced precisely through these literary works.
In Oedipus Rex, the parricide is absolutely exceptional and absolutely horrific. Sophocles does not present Oedipus’s action as in any way innate. It is a big mistake. The proper relationship of son to father is deemed to be filial piety.
In King Lear, we are presented with a loopy father-figure who still, somewhat childishly, demands love and respect. Nonetheless, in spite of his raucous knights/nights, Regan and Goneril are presented as cruel and villainous for putting Lear out, while Cordelia is obviously good. The values remain the same, but a crucial complication has been introduced—the father may not actually be all that worthy of the respect he demands from his children. Historically, this coincides with the rise of science and free inquiry—doubts, that is, about God-the-Father’s supreme authority.
Move forward to The Brothers Karamazov. Now the father, Fyodor, is undeniably disreputable and unworthy. His sons are neglected from childhood; two of his three sons desire his death. A fourth, possibly illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, is also involved in the murder. In the long trial scene at the end, Dmitri’s smooth-talking defense lawyer makes a case that the father, Fyodor, had squandered the right to be considered a father at all, as far as the crime was concerned; even if Dmitri did kill the man, the crime wasn’t “parricide” at all, not with a father like that. Several enlightened ladies of the town, whom Dostoevsky obviously holds in contempt, like this idea and want acquittal, but the “peasants” on the jury (Russians novelists love peasants) condemn Dmitri anyway. We see Dmitri condemned even though we know he hasn’t committed parricide, only desired parricide. This strikes me as Dostoevsky telling me something, as he has a tendency to do. “It doesn’t matter what your Father [read: God] is like. It’s not okay to kill him—or even to want to kill him.”
This point is driven home in the final scene where Alyosha, the “good” son, attends the funeral of another “good” son, the schoolboy Ilyusha, who is presented as noble because he fights other schoolboys when they make fun of his down-and-out, drunkard father, Captain Snegiryov. A quote from the last pages: “Let us remember his [Ilyusha’s] face, and his clothes, and his poor boots, and his little coffin, and his unfortunate, sinful father, and how he [Ilyusha] bravely rose up against the whole class for him!”
Dostoevsky publishes The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. Nietzsche publishes The Gay Science in 1882, where we first hear that “God is dead.” Nietzsche goes on to share a parable about a madman:
“‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. We are all his murderers.’”
Which states pretty clearly that this God did not die of natural causes. This was a murder; or, in a tradition where God is a Father, a parricide.
A mere three decades later, Freud starts up about the Oedipus complex. Now the urge toward parricide, conscious or “subconscious,” is considered widespread. (Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in a brain fever, prefigures this shift. “‘Who doesn’t wish for his father’s death?’” he asks rhetorically when giving testimony at his brother’s trial.) This is roughly the time of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; the Bolsheviks acknowledge the authority neither of the Tsar nor of God. Both of whom were, often enough, conflated with the father. According to Wikipedia,
“a metaphor existed likening tsar to the father, and all of the subjects of the Empire, to his children; it was even used in Orthodox primers. This metaphor is present in the common Russian expression ‘царь-батюшка’, literally ‘tsar-dear father’.”
The European counterpoint to all this—and this God-is-dead thing is a very European idea, and has come to seem as dated as Nietzsche’s mustache—is Jesus declaring “I and my Father are one,” and even before that, pious Aeneas, who ran from a burning Troy with his elderly father Anchises on his back.