Uncle Oedipus and Ante Bellum

Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age

by George B. Forgie
Norton, 308 pp., $14.95

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln; drawing by David Levine

In his brilliant analysis of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Carl E. Schorske uncovered a patricidal and deeply anti-political impulse at the very origin of psychoanalysis. The death of a father, Freud said, is “the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.” As Schorske probed the implications of this statement as revealed in Freud’s dreams, especially the “Revolutionary Dream” of 1898 (two years after the death of Freud’s father), he discovered that Freud had subtly renounced earlier fantasies of political defiance and revolution. Of the dream that Freud termed “revolutionary,” Schorske wrote, “patricide replaces politics,” and the resolution of the dream—pointing to his pursuit of fame as a scientific investigator—connects Freud’s “victory over his father with his victory over politics.” For the scenario of the dream moves “from political encounter, through flight into academia, to the conquest of the father who has replaced Count Thun [the reactionary minister president of Habsburg Austria]. Patricide replaces regicide; psychoanalysis overcomes history. Politics is neutralized by a counterpolitical psychology.”

Schorske goes on to argue that Freud sublimated Ferdinand Lassalle’s “latent forces of national revolution,” symbolized by the demonic fury, Allecto, into a universal sexual instinct; and that by accentuating the sexual aspects of the Oedipus myth, Freud diverted attention from Oedipus’ kingship and regal obligation to restore public order:

By resolving politics into personal psychological categories, [Freud] restores personal order, but not public order…. By reducing his own political past and present to an epiphenomenal status in relation to the primal conflict between father and son, Freud gave his fellow liberals an ahistorical theory of man that could make bearable a political world spun out of orbit and beyond control.1

George B. Forgie’s Patricide in the House Divided takes precisely the opposite approach from that of Schorske (whom Forgie acknowledges as an adviser but never cites). One of the most ambitious, ingenious, and sophisticated works of psychohistory yet to appear (it won the Allan Nevins Award of the Society of American Historians), Patricide is much indebted to Freud’s Totem and Taboo but also draws on some of the best recent psychoanalytic literature. To put it briefly, Forgie holds that Lincoln’s generation, having internalized a reverence for the founding fathers as inimitable exemplars of heroic virtue, could neither recognize nor resolve their own needs to destroy their parents. Instead of retreating from politics and projecting political symbols into the private sphere, as Freud apparently did, they affirmed the primacy of politics while projecting the symbols of family and domestic life into the public world:

…as society preempted functions that once were monopolized by the family, it looked for ways to model its performance on that of an idealized family, and described what it was doing in sentimental language. The effect was arguably to make society seem like the family writ large, embracing the whole country.

For Forgie, this…

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