"Laius and Oedipus,
Abraham and Isaac,
God and Jesus:
Abraham and Isaac,
God and Jesus:
-- killings which loom like greaton the flat landscape of
3000 years of human carnage."
Sculptor George Segal and his sculpture in memory of students slain and wounded at Kent State by Ohio National Guardsmen, entitled In Memory of May 4, 1970:Kent State---Abraham and Isaac.
The sculpture was commissioned by Kent State University circa 1977 which then promptly rejected it in 1979, inexplicably giving as a reason that it "depicted violence". LINK
The public was left to wonder if Kent State's administration was still in denial, nine years after the shootings, or merely kowtowing to its funding source, the State of Ohio, whose Guardsmen committed the slayings.
This is a funding source which prefers to ignore the horrible event or refer to the slayings with bloodless euphemisms such as the "Kent State incident" or "Kent State tragedy".
Sadly, this strategy of euphemizing the butchery that day, has succeeded, and by this writing nearly forty years later (September, 2009) the Kent State slayings are merely a paragraph or two in history books and the slain are erroneously lumped together as "anti-war demonstrators," when in fact two of the slain were onlookers; one a male ROTC student (Bill Schroeder), the other a female student (Sandy Scheuer) walking to class.
Princeton University accepted the sculpture the same year that Kent State rejected it and displays it prominently outside its Chapel today. This writer attended the dedication ceremonies at the President's House at Princeton University in 1979, which included as honored guests, (along with many of the nine wounded students) the parents of the four slain students.
Kent State University,
May 4, 1970
RFD 4 Box 323
North Brunswick, N.J. 08902
March 5, 1979
Dear Mr. Keane,
Thanks for sending me a copy of your brilliant paper.
I value greatly your sensitive and profound response
to a difficult subject.
For your interest and curiosity,there is a painting
by Hieronymus Bosch in the Prado Museum,
ADORATION OF THE MAGI, in which there is a
sculptured representation of the Abraham-Isaac story
offered as a gift to the Infant. Then look closely at
the embroidered images on the cloaks of the Kings.
Essentially, you've cracked my code, which delights me.
On my trip to Kent State last spring, I was appalled
at the blind cliche of radical left vs radical right
that was delivered to me. My decision to picture the
May 4 situation more as I understood it caused a large
uproar, as you well know, but I felt stubbornly it was
necessary to deal with the ambiguity and conflict of
modern psychaitry, and its swirlinq agreement with
classical myth and religious dogma. Which is precisely
what your paper is about.
I like exceedingly your hungry search for unifying threads
connecting these diverse and packed fields.
July 10, 79, 1:30pm I'll be on a panel with Jane Dillenberger and others at the Aubern Theological Seminary, 120 St and Broadway, NYC. One of the topics we plan to talk about involves Jesus's embracing of death in contrast with the Abraham-Isaac story and its implications about stubborn physical life survival.
Hope you can attend.
It will be a pleasure to meet you.
With best regards,
"George Segal created a series of sculptures throughout his career based on biblical works. These sculptures contained important biblical figures from the Old Testament, dressed in modern-day clothing and set in a realistic environment. One of these works, In Memory of May 4, 1970:Kent State-Abraham and Isaac, was created in response to the shooting of anti-war demonstrators by the National Guard, on the Kent State campus during the Vietnam War [INCORRECT: Two of the fatalities were not demonstrators; one, a boy, was a ROTC student observing the protest, and the other, a girl, was walking to class.] Segal used the idea of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to complete God's will, to represent the National Guard's willingness to sacrifice American people to make a point. The sculpture shows Isaac on his knees in front of Abraham, seemingly begging for his life. This work was considered to be politically controversial and rejected by its comissioner Kent State for being 'unpatriotic ' ". (Berman)
Paul D. Keane
New Testament Tutorial (Prof. R.A. Greer)
Yale Divinity School
Transcribed by PDK , 09/27/2009
(Note: For thirty years this paper has gathered dust in Sterling Memorial Library Manuscripts and Archives' "Kent State Collection" at Yale University. After a brush with death myself last year, I read it again and decided to exhume it and put it on line. Here it is.)
Oedipus, Isaac, and Jesus
Laius and Oedipus, Abraham and Isaac, God and Jesus: Three fathers, three sons, three killings -- killings which loom like great pyramids on the flat landscape of 3000 years of human carnage.
What is it about these killings which, epoch after epoch, 'thrills through us'(to pluralize Oedipus' first words of recognition)?
Perhaps the Abraham/Isaac motif illuminates this question. It has been used throughout the ages as a powerful and ambivalent symbol. "The Index of Christian Art at Princeton gives no less than 1450 entries for Genesis 22: 1-19".* (Spiegel, p. xi)
Indeed this very paper is prompted by my encounter with the latest artistic rendering of the theme, George Segal's sculpture "In Memory of May 4, 1970 Kent State: Abraham and Isaac" at New York's Janis Gallery.
My exploration of the Abraham/Isaac theme here will be more than a seminarian's obligatory term project however; for, I witnessed the Kent State killings and I can testify that God did not call for human sacrifice at Kent State, nor did He stay the hands of the Abrahams wearing Ohio National Guardsman uniforms that bloody May 4, nine year ago .
Mr. Segal's comment that his sculpture deals with "the moral underpinning of everyone's belief -- as Abraham moves to do violence with his right hand, his compassion and love for his son are expressed in the gesture made by his left" doesn't help me much either; for, there has been no compassion or love expressed by those responsible for the killings at Kent State, but rather an unrelenting "truculence with which Ohio officialdom [has] responded time and again to the anger and anguish of the victims' families." (New York Times editorial January 8,1979).
Indeed Segal's portrayal of the theme left me angry: Isaac is on bended knees in front of his knife-wielding father, trustingly searching Abraham's eyes for some explanation of the act which is about to be performed - - "No man, not even a father, should be worshipped; and Isaac worships Abraham here", was my reaction.
Perhaps a brief consideration of how the Abraham/Isaac motif has been used in history and literature will make Mr. Segal's choice of theme more understandable. In The Last Trial, Professor Shalom Spiegel's exhaustive work on 'the Akedah [the binding] of Isaac' legend, we find a grisly account of one instance of the theme's manipulation to meet the needs of history, viz. when Jews slaughtered each other by the hundred rather than surrender to the nightmare of the Crusades in the 11th Century:
Solomon bar Samson records 'on the testimony of the elders' who were eye and ear witnesses of the events of 1096.
And Zion's precious sons, the people of Mainz, were put through the ten trials like Father Abraham. They too offered their sons, exactly as Abraham offered up his son Isaac. . . . There were 1,100 victims in one day, every one of them like the Akedah of Isaac son of Abraham.
(Spiegel, p. 25)
Thus: In the community of Worms, some eight hundred souls were killed in the course of two days at the end of the month Iyyar 1096. Among those were some who "offered up sacrifices of righteousness, who with whole heart took their sons and slew them for the Unification of His Glorious and Awesome Name. . . . Now there was a unique person there whose name was R. Meshullam bar Isaac, and in a loud voice he called out to all those standing by and to his lifelong companion, Mistress Zipporah: 'All ye great and small, hearken unto me. Here is my son whom God gave me and to whom my wife Zipporah gave birth in her old age. Isaac is the child's name. And now I shall offer him up as Father Abraham offered his son Isaac'
Whereupon Zipporah besought him: ' 0' my Lord, my lord, do not yet lay thy hand upon the lad whom I raised and brought up after having given birth to him in my old age. Slay me first so that I shall not have to behold the death of the child. But he replied, saying: 'Not even for a moment shall I delay, for He who gave him to us will take him away to his own portion and. . . Lay him to rest in Father Abraham's bosom. 'And he bound his son Isaac, and picked up the knife to slay his son, and recited the blessing appropriate for slaughter. And the lad replied 'Amen. ' And the father slew the lad. Then he ,took his shrieking wife and both of them together left the room; and the vagabonds murdered them. Over such as these wilt Thou hold Thy peace, 0 Lord?
(Spiegel, pp. 24-25)
In our own crusade -- the American Civil War -- a song written by James Sloan Gibbons to help raise volunteers for the Union Army entitled "Three Hundred Thousand More" employs the political/theological double entendre "Father Abraham", evoking in the Biblically astute ear of the 19th Century American an image tantamount to a call to glorious death:
"We are coming Father Abraham
Three hundred thousand more."
And while the allusion suggests the irony that it is to Father Abraham's bosom they are going, the very notion of Father Abraham suggests the son whom God had requested in sacrifice those many centuries before, a suggestion which compounds the irony as thousands of sons prepare to become the blood sacrifice of the American Abraham.
Wilfred Owen manipulates the sacrifice theme more directly in his World War I poem, "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young".
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went
And took the fire with him, and a knife,
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering ?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth knife, to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, --
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
(Blunden, p. 57)
And there is Soren Kierkegaard who, in Fear and Trembling, has focused on the angst of the father faced with his dilemma. (I will want to focus on the angst of the son, but more of that later.)
Even the contemporary folk singer,poet Bob Dylan, has employed the Abraham / Isaac motif in his song, "Highway 61":
God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son",
Abe said "Man you must be puttin me on",
God said "No",
Abe said "What! "
God said "You can do what you want man
but the next time you see me comin
you better run"
Abe says, "Where you want this killin done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61".
One can't help but notice the complete contradiction of Scripture in these examples, since as we all know, Abraham did NOT slay Isaac.
That distortion cost many sons their lives at Mainz and Worms, and is used in the literary examples as a device to comment on the disobedience of man who has continued to slay his sons one way or another through the ages. Even the Segal sculpture reflects this contradiction, for as Peter Davies, author of The Truth About Kent State, told me after viewing it: "Abraham looks as if he's going to do it, as if he's . . . actually going to go through with it."
The literary irony seems didactic since the Abraham/Isaac motif has traditionally been seen by theologians as an instruction to man that God is not favorably impressed by human sacrifice. Indeed the substitute of a ram for Isaac on Mt. Moriah in the Genesis account has been understood as God's call for man to replace human sacrifice with animal sacrifice.
Professor Spiegel is straightforward about this: "It may well be that in the narrative of the ram which Abraham sacrificed as a burnt offering in place of his son,there is historical remembrance of the transition to animal sacrifice from human sacrifice -- a religious and moral achievement which in the folk memory was associated with Abraham's name, the father of the faith and the first of the upright in the Lord's way". (p. 64)
But I suspect this didactic irony points to something buried deep in the human psyche which enables an actual father at Mainz to slay his son, something which enables a nation's fathers to send their children into son-slaying ventures like the Civil War, World War I, and to turn a blind eye to son-slaying on American highways and perhaps even at Kent State.
What might this unconscious something be? Professor Spiegel alludes to it I think:
The paschal offering ritual in the Torah is
based on a rejection of the primitive practices
of paganism, or at least on their transfiguration.
And yet, in the sources and in their
customs there survives something of the dread
of the ancient festival of the first-born. The
night of the full moon, in the first month of
the Spring season and according to the archaic
calendar the first of the months of the year was
a time of attack and atonement for members of
the tribe. It was the time to appease higher
powers, and it was a time to battle against the
forces of evil which station themselves on the
threshold of the new year in order to harass
and hurt man and everything he possesses. It
may be, however, that the gods will be placated
and for the price of a small gift of first fruits
and first born they will show favor and spare
the rest of earth's produce and the cattle litter
and the fruit of the womb. By paying a ransom
to his gods from the yield of the field and the
firstlings, and, from whatever he plants for
food, the primitive hopes to obtain the favor
that they shall neither hurt nor destroy the field
and orchard, cattle and property, wives and
children. As with the first fruits of the field,
so he delivers to the gods their share of his
newborn, the first issue of every animal and
human womb, lest the other cattle and children
be destroyed. This is the soil out of which
grows the offering of the first born, human and
animal, in the Spring festival of ancient shepherds
and herdsmen -- all for the purpose of protecting
and guarding the tribe and its livestock.
Scripture forbade the sacrifice of the human
first born, and for the practice substituted that
of the redemption of sons -- but the primitive
demand of "You shall give me the firstborn among
your sons" was based on the ancient principle of
the sanctity of all first born, "the first issue of
every womb among the children of Israel". (Exod.
13:1 and 22:28, Num. 3:12 and 1 Kings 8:14ff . . . )
The biblical paschal sacrifice also came to put an
end to the heathenish practices of the Spring festival,
to abolish human sacrifice and in its place to substitute
animal sacrifice. Nevertheless, here and
there vestiges of the age-old heritage did survive,
from strata of the religion of archaic times, before
the ancients had yet learned how to propitiate the
gods without resorting to blood sacrifice. (Speigel, p. 53)
Yes, it is the power of unconscious atavistic choreographies to 'thrill through us' which these contradictory uses of the Abraham/Isaac motif point to. Those of us in the modern world see the power of such atavistic choreographies in the everyday example of the domesticated dog which dances a small circle with its body before lying down. This circular motion is a kind of vestigial behaviour, a remembrance of the need of its canine ancestors to mat into a nest the grass of
pastures in the antique world.
So too with the human heart.
And in fact in early Jewish lore and exegesis (haggadah and midrash) the power
of this atavism effects the Abraham/Isaac motif: For legend exists that Abraham actually went all the way, that he slaughtered his son on Mt. Moriah. Indeed, "the blood of Isaac's Akedah" is a troubling phrase which persisted in haggadah to such an extent that Spiegel speculates,
In the Haggadah of the talmudic Sages the
attempt to defy Scripture and ignore its signals
was made and succeeded. Or perhaps the
Haggadah recovered for Judaism something of
that legacy the Torah wished to renounce or at
least subdue. Out of its longing -to provide atonement
for the sins of Israel (N. B. "there is no
atonement without blood ! ") the Haggadah brought
to completion the deed of the father, the first in
a long line of those who were to bind for the altar,
and made full the righteous piety of the son, the
first in a long line of those who were to be bound
on an altar; and of the blood of the Akedah made
an offering on high where it might serve as protection
and guardian of Israel until the end came
Again, therefore, what do we find? That it was
not in the Middle Ages that this haggadah was invented.
Passover and the Akedah go hand in hand
on the New Year of the ancient calendar and festival
of the first born in the pastoral society of antiquity.
Who knows? Maybe in the blood of Isaac's Akedah,
as in the sacrifice in the first month of the Spring,
there is a speck of a hint that the roots of that
haggadah on the slaughter of Isaac reach back to
- - a remote past of the world of idolatry, possibly
before biblical religion came into being.
(Speigel, pp. 58-59)
Thus, the need to defy Scripture with a contradictory legend that Isaac was actually slaughtered is but a slight indication of the hold this ritual of human sacrifice atavistically retained over the human heart. The historical and literary manipulations of the Abraham/Isaac motif cited above refer to horrors of actual human,sacrifice which I suspect more accurately reflect the power which this
atavistic choreography retains in man even today.Indeed, it can hardly be a coincidence that majority of those slain in the Civil War, World War I, on American highways and at Kent State have been young people or, figuratively speaking, Isaacs.
But what of this legend that Isaac was actually slain? It must be a solitary and exceptional legend indeed!
Not at all. In fact,Spiegel's The Last Trial is a 158-page examination of the appearances of this legend in haggadah and midrash, an examination which considers such derivative legends as these: That Abraham drew a quarter of Isaac's blood for sacrifice; that God stayed Abraham's hand,but too late, for the altar fire consumed him and reduced him to ashes; that God breathed life back into Isaac so he could father the nation Israel.
All of these variations stem from a structural ambiguity in the Genesis account of the sacrifice: viz. after God stays the hand of Abraham, Isaac disappears! ("So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose together and went to Beersheeba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheeba": Where is Isaac? Still on the mountain top? Why are not father and son depicted as rejoicing hand in hand at God's mercy in calling off the sacrifice? Why does Abraham descend the mountain alone?)
Some early Jewish scholars cope with this problem by hypothesizing that God took Isaac into Paradise to instruct him, or to heal him from the wound Abraham inflicted; but the fact is that Isaac is not seen again until two chapters have elapsed (Genesis 24:69) when he meets the woman he will marry, Rebekah.
If the modern ear, sensitive to New Testament motifs, hears certain parallel motifs in all this, it does so with justification. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church reports thusly in its entry for "Isaac":
In the NT Isaac appears in Gal. 3.16 and
4.21-31 as a type of Christ and of the Church.
He is both the son of promise and the father of
the faithful. In Heb. the sacrifice of Isaac is
brought into connexion with the sacrifice of
Christ (11. 17-19). This theme was developed
in the Fathers, who regard his intended immolation
as a type of the sacrifice of Golgotha. Thus
Tertullian sees Isaac carrying the wood the type
of Christ carrying His Cross. St. Cyril of
Alexandria elaborates in detail the similarities
between the two sacrifices, and St. Augustine
compares the ram substituted for Isaac with
Christ crucified. In the Middle Ages, the
sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguration of the
Passion was a favourite topic of theologians.
The important part which this conception has
played in Christian art is shown by the paintings
of the Catacombs, where the representation of
the scene is used as a figure of the Eucharist.
Significantly, the author of our work of departure, Shalom Spiegel, (Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America) exacts this conclusion from the resonances in the two Testaments:
To put it briefly: Both differentiae and
parallels in the two traditions on the one
bound and the one crucified seem to point
rather to a common source in the ancient
pagan world. What survived from the
heritage of idolatry which in Judaism remained
peripheral grew to become dominant
in the Christian world, which sought to shape
and clarify the Golgotha [Calvary] Event in
the Akedah image and likeness. And when
Christianity placed at the center of its
religion belief in the atoning power of the
blood of its messiah, in Israel a need was
increasingly felt to blur more and more the
remnants of similar ancient beliefs from
pagan times, leaving behind therefore only
faint traces in our sources. Withal, however,
it is possible to find support for every one of
the details of the Haggadah on the slaughter
and resurrection of Isaac in the documents of
talmudic-midrashic literature itself, independently
of ideas or sources from the realm of Christianity.
Thus, it is not only the power of atavistic choreographies that keeps the sacrifice-fulfilled legend alive, it is theological politics.
For Scripture can "triumph" in evolving man from human to animal sacrifice, while the existence of this contradictory legend will ensure, in Professor Speigel's eyes, that Judaism will escape the criticism heard "in many countries, particularly in Christian kingdoms, in the Middle Ages, when the taunt was frequently directed against Israel that the Akedah was no sacrifice in truth, but only a hint of what was to come, the completed act in the days of Jesus." (p. 129)
So much for the rivalry of first century Middle Eastern religions as they sought to consolidate their positions.
Although this raises the question that the present shape of sacred literature in the Judeo-Christian tradition may have been determined more by theological politics than by Divine inspiration, there is still considerable value in viewing the Bible as the highest expression of the collective unconscious recorded during the emergence of civilization.
And, in such a light, I suggest, these two great father/son killing motifs stand out as archetypes of primitive man's attempt to cope with the anxiety caused by man's ambivalence not only toward his natural father, but toward the Author of life he worships as Father.
For what is often overlooked, if not smoothed over, is the terrifying notion behind both of these stories: God choreographs human sacrifice.
Let me repeat these words, GOD CHOREOGRAPHS HUMAN SACRIFICE.
The very idea evokes anxieties which 'thrill through'the deepest regions of the soul of every son. It kindles in some dark atavistic corner of the human heart a remembrance of that ancient pagan ritual of the sacrifice of the first-born,a ritual which must have filled all sons with suspicion and dread.
And what (we might rightly ask) is the value of evoking such a vestigial anxiety in the depths of the human heart? After all, it would only distance fathers from sons.
For as every son approaches manhood what can be more terrifying for him than the recognition that his allegiance to his Self is greater than his allegiance to his father? This recognition brings with it not only anxiety but suspicion that one's own father might similarly be capable of an allegiance greater than the parental
contract, as Abraham with Isaac, and God with Jesus.
But those anxieties 'thrill through' our heart in a more pervasive way. For
what better description can there be for the human predicament itself than those very words: "GOD CHOREOGRAPHS HUMAN SACRIFICE": The Father who breathes life into man is also the Father who takes it away: We are born to die.
Most of life is an elaborate attempt to escape anxiety over feeling both anger and gratitude for the gift of being imprisoned in that choreography. Indeed, psychiatry tells us that repression of our ambivalent feelings toward those who gave us our lives can bind our minds in the most crippling manner.
The third great father/son killing motif from the ancient world alludes to that binding.
In Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex two significant variations occur in the theme: The SON has killed the father; and he has done so UNWITTINGLY. Fate, not God, choreographs this killing.
Further, the concommitant of this killing is the son's binding to the family in the most intimate and inextricable of ways -- incest: Oedipus unwittingly has married his mother.
This is quite different from Isaac who appears released from his father's literal binding on Moriah and from binding to the family. For, as we noted before, Abraham leaves the scene of the aborted sacrifice WITHOUT Isaac, who disappears from the narrative until two chapters and three years later, when he returns (at the age of 40!) to assume the role of manhood, i. e. to marry Rebekah and perpetuate the race: (Genesis 24:67+) "Then Isaac brought her into the tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife. And he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death." Note that Isaac's absence from the narrative after his release from the binding encompasses even his mother's death, (Genesis 23. 1) a significant fact in terms of our concern with the transition to manhood and release from binding to the family.
But what of the binding on Calvary?
We have already noted the inescapable parallels between, and pagan precedents for the sacrifices of Moriah and Calvary. We have also recorded Spiegel's assertion that what became central to Christianity was assigned a peripheral position in Judaism(Moriah takes up one chapter in Genesis: Calvary is the very underpinning of the entire New Testament).
If we are correct that the Oedipus, Isaac and Jesus stories represent a kind of primitive psychiatry emerging from the collective unconscious of the ancient world, we would expect the most extensive elaboration of that father/son killing motif to provide us with significantly more clues from which to deduce the intent of that primitive psychiatry.
I believe it does.
It is almost as if the agenda implicit in Isaac's ordeal (his release from family binding) had not been understood by ancient man, and therefore had to be made explicit in the words of one whose crucifixion would break that binding 'once for all'.
Listen for example to how remarkably un-bound Jesus is:
. . . call no man your father on
earth, for you have one Father
who is in heaven . . . (Matt. 23. 9)
What iconoclastic words these are in a world where the word 'father' commanded a respect tantamount to worship! Indeed, Young's Analytic Concordance to the Bible records no less than 2500 entries for 'father'.
Consider then another short entry from the first century biography of Jesus:
Then his mother and his brothers came
to him, but they could not reach him for
the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother
and your brothers are standing outside
desiring to see you." But he said to them,
"My mother and my brothers are those
who hear the word of God and do it."
(Luke 8. 19)
And what is the greatest imperative of that word: As we might have already inferred, a commandment which (significantly) omits any notion of family obeisance:
"Which commandment is the first of all? "
Jesus answered, "The first is this, 'Hear,
0 Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one;
and you shall love the Lord your God with all
your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this, 'You shall love your
neighbor as yourself. ' There is no other
commandment greater than these.
(Mark 12. 28-32)
It is possible to postulate at this point that these three great motifs are concerned to facilitate in Every-son a process which modern psychiatry calls "separation and individuation" from the family of origin. In the Greek version, this facilitation occurs through catharsis, the purging of binding-emotions through pity and fear.
In the biblical version, it occurs through paradox, the use of fear to create courage.
For the atavistic angst of Every-son as he hears that the ultimate father
(God) choreographs the blood sacrifice of sons (Isaac,Jesus) creates in him a fear of his own father, a fear which, paradoxically, gives him the courage -- the psychological distance -- necessary to launchout on the process of separation and individuation.
And this may be what the literature means by "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son": God so loves his worldly children that He choreographs sacrifices which will initiate them into the ambivalent feelings of manhood.
Hence Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for a higher allegiance, and God's willingness to sacrifice His son for a higher allegiance suddenly sound remarkably like the ambivalence described by sculptor Segal, in which "the moral underpinning of everyone's belief" is embodied in the hands of Abraham :"as Abraham moves to do violence with his right hand, his compassion and love for his son are expressed in the gesture made by his lefthand. " (N.Y. Times, Nov. 18, 1978 or January 8, 1979)
John Zinner and Roger Shapiro in their article "Projective Identification as a Mode of Perception and Behaviour in Families of Adolescents" allude to the powerful ambivalence associated with the process of freeing ourselves from the binding of family scenarios; their insight further clarifies Segal's use of the Abraham/Isaac theme for his Kent State sculpture:
We view the family as such a small group [Bion's Small Group Behavior Model] and, more metaphorically, as the cast of a drama, the themes of which are some combination of adaptive and functional family 'work' tasks and a variety of generally unconscious fantasies, or covert assumptions, often conceived of as if they were a 'hidden agenda'. Families with adolescent children have as a primary task to facilitate the development of ego autonomy and individuation in the offspring . . . This task, whose successful outcome implies a significant restructuring of the family group, is endangered by demands placed upon the child to collude with the unconscious assumptions of family life which are implicitly striving to maintain the status quo ante in family relationships. From the very formation of a new family, unconscious assumptions exert an important influence on behaviour. Marital choice is motivated by a desire to find an object who will complement and reinforce unconscious fantasies . . . Prior to their birth, children are introduced into the covert assumptions of family life in their parents' fantasies, and from birth onward, a variety of parental coercions interact with the child's own instinctual requirements to fix him as a collusive participant in the family's hidden agenda . . . This re-enactment of the parents' own early object relations within the context in which he himself is a parent may assume the form of highly fluid role attributions in which the adolescent may be perceived at one time as the parent's parent, and at other times as the child who his parent once was. Thus, in the same family a child can be both parentified and infantalized . . The variables relevant to the development of psychopathology in the offspring seem to involve the content of the projected material, the capacity of the parent to differentiate himself from the child, and the intensity of the parental defensive requirements.
Depending on the nature of the interaction of these factors, projective identification can endow a relationship with salutary empathetic qualities or, to the contrary, generate binding attributions in which the child remains a creature of parental defensive economy.
This ambivalence of the family both seeking to facilitate development of ego autonomy in the offspring while simultaneously seeking to maintain the status quo ante of family relationships further explains the phenomenon of contradictory legends accompanying both the Moriah and Calvary events; for, if -- as we are postulating -- both of these stories are primitive psychiatric initiation rites designed to facilitate growth into manhood, then the culture's attempts to undermine those initiation rites with tales that Isaac was actually killed and Jesus never resurrected are nothing less than the ambivalence of the family raised to the societal level, i. e. the collective unconscious' attempt to maintain the status quo ante in which the fantasy of Establishment authority does not give way to the new generation, while at the same time recognizing that it must give way if the new generation is to be un-bound or free to carry on the race.
And it is precisely here that Segal's sculpture and the Kent State incident become pertinent: The students who gathered on the Kent State Commons that May 4th 1970, to protest the occupation of their campus by National Guardsmen were more than 'students' or 'protestors' to those Guardsmen; they were terrifying
symbols of the Guardsmen's own ambivalence and anxiety over the process of separation and individuation.
For those students represented a growing activism in youth across the country during the 1960's whose goal was nothing less than the smashing of family fantasy on a national scale -- the fantasy that in the perpetuation of the Viet Nam War the Establishment-fathers knew best, that they had the best interests of their country's sons at heart.
As we know from Wilfred Owen's "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young"; from the son-sacrifices at Mainz and Worms; from our own son-slaughter in the Civil War; and even from the blood sacrifices offered on the asphalt altars of our national highways to the God of Gross National Product: The old men often have allegiances which require the death of society's sons.
The ambivalence felt by the young about the process of separation and individuation is I suggest nowhere more dramatically revealed in current events than in these Kent State murders.
For it was not Abraham sacrificing Isaac at Kent State, it was Isaac sacrificing Isaac.
As in Zinner and Shapiro's projective identification model, the National Guardsmen-Isaacs had been parentified by the Establishment fathers, and when they killed the Kent State four, they were acting as collusive agents in the societal family's hidden agenda to maintain the status quo ante of societal family relationships.
That those National Guardsmen were the same age as the very persons they killed and maimed, suggests that they were trying to kill the 'son' in themselves, to extinguish the anxiety evoked by the protestors' symbolic separation and individuation ritual, i. e. defiance of the Establishment .
Indeed the Scranton Commission has concluded that the Guardsmen's lives were not in danger at the time of the shooting, and the records show that of the four killed and nine wounded the closest person was 71 feet from the Guardsmen, the farthest 495 feet.
(The four students killed were 265, 343, 382, and 390 feet away,respectively. Not even an Olympic athlete could throw a stick or stone 300 feet with enough accuracy to pose bodily harm, let alone a fatal threat! Nor does the chanting of obscenities and the chasing of Guardsmen around a campus constitute a lethal threat; the Scranton Commission agrees and concludes that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted and unjustifiable".)
Thus, there are data to suggest that the real threat which these Guardsmen felt was the threat of their own unconscious anxiety and ambivalence in the presence of a group of iconoclastic Isaacs and Jesuses who had had enough: Who refused to passively walk up the Moriahs and Calvarys of Viet Nam on the command of their societal fathers; a group of young people who dared to cut the family bindings by holding their allegiance to themselves higher than their allegiance
to their 'fathers' !
In some blind atavistic ritual from the pagan past, these Guardsmen sought to assuage their own anxiety about manhood by taking on the role of 'fathers' killing their 'sons'.
Segal's sculpture therefore takes on the added dimension of defining our own misunderstanding of the biblical father/son killing motifs of Moriah and Calvary.
For society has used these stories to evoke in the reader feelings of gratitude for God's mercy, when in fact their real salvific quality is their capacity to evoke our feelings of ambivalence, in order to release us from the bindings of family fantasies which lead to the terror of Oedipus or the nightmare of Kent State.
Just as Segal's worshipful Isaac should anger us, so too should these words of Jesus: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee: remove this cup from me; yet not what I will but what thou wilt. "
For it is only when we can feel both our anger and our gratitude to the biological, societal, and celestial parents whose wills bind us, that we can transform our ambivalence into the liberating harness of compassion and Love.
Paul D. Keane
GENESIS 22: 1-19After these things God tested Abraham, and said
to him, "Abraham! " And he said, "Here am I. " He said
"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. "
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. " And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.
So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father." And he said, "Here am I, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God will
provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham" And he said, "Here am I. " He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided." And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
Berman, B. "George Segal: Works from the Bible." Exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. February 1997. 12 October 2000. http://www.jewishculture.org/jewishmuseums/segal.html.(A site with photos of five of Segal's biblically tied works. Great photo of In Memory of May 4, 1970: Kent State-Abraham and Isaac
London (Chatto and Windus, 1931).
Spiegel, Shalom. The Last Trial :On the Legends and Lore of theNew York (Random House, 1967).
the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: the Akedah.
the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: the Akedah.
Mode of Perception and Behaviour in Families of Adolescents."
International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1972) 53,523.
International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1972) 53,523.