The Body of

                by David Lee Miller

[This essay is the introduction to a book-length study entitled Dreams of the Burning Child:  Sacrificial Sons and the Father’s Witness, forthcoming from Cornell University Press in November, 2002.  It appears in Agora by permission of Cornell University Press.


David Lee Miller has been my friend since 1970, when we were freshmen at Yale together. We used to do extraordinarily geeky takes on tennis, flag football, and intramural soccer, but were much better at pool and ping pong, since these could be squeezed into short intervals between paper writing marathons and we could argue about Spenser, Wordsworth, Bart Giamatti, and Leslie Brisman as we played. When the Dining Services staff went on strike in 1971 we subsisted mainly on scrambled eggs cooked on a hot plate in Dave's dorm room, using the remainder of our $4.31 daily meal contract rebate to buy beer. During junior year we gave a floor party in Morse College at which the narrow hallway ended up so full of sitting revellers that anyone who wanted to get to the bathroom had to do a "trust fall" and get passed through the crowd like a beer at a football game.


We both ended up at UC Irvine for graduate school, and during the first year shared a wonderful beach house David had found on the Balboa peninsula, a short walk from the beach, a geeky softball toss from one tiny arm of the bay, where from our front porch we could sometimes see yachts putt-putting up the canal to their private docks at neighboring Lido Isle. The off-season rent we were paying was one-fourth the vacation rental price. In spite of everything we got some studying done, and both finished our dissertations in 1979.


David went on to the University of Alabama, where he taught from 1978-1994. He has published very widely in such journals as Modern Language Quarterly, English Literary History, and Representations, has often been a fellow of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, was Visiting Professor for a semester at Chapel Hill, and held a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship from 1994 to 1995. His first book, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queen, published by Princeton University Press in 1988, is a tightly focused study which opens up like a Blakean Vortex to engage central issues of Renaissance studies, literary theory, and culture criticism. Since then his continuing interest in those fields has borne fruit in many articles, lectures, and conference papers.


Since 1994 David has been Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, and he and his wife Lynn Pruett have lived in Lexington with their three sons, Jack, Truman, and Sam. 2002 has been a banner year for them, as Lynn's novel Ruby River will be issed by Grove/Atlantic at almost the same time that Cornell releases David's Dreams of the Burning Child. It's enough to make an old roommate's heart swell with pride. —John Kilgore]

The motif of filial sacrifice is the most striking feature shared by the canonical texts of English literature, along with their classical and biblical antecedents. Why is this so? Why do Western patriarchies so persistently imagine sacrificing their sons?


This question cannot be answered in the abstract, solved, like an equation, with the right theoretical proof. It is historical, although framed so broadly as to be almost unanswerable in purely historical terms. While postmodern literary and cultural studies are increasingly political, their historicism tends to be local, remaining notably skeptical of “master narratives” that sweep across material differences in language, custom, economic organization, family structure, and institutional context. What can be the object of a study that crosses millennia? My answers are speculative, but I take the question seriously. The cultural breadth and historical insistence of the motif are precisely what have to be accounted for. To ask about its recurrence in spite of so much change is a way of asking about its power. What could enable this cultural fantasy and the ensemble of practices that support it to reproduce and mutate like a virus? Why does it haunt the most intimate spaces of personal subjectivity even as it invades the most public spaces of Western culture—the book, the altar, the museum, the theater? What has the sacrificial son meant to the melancholy patriarchies of the past, and to what extent does this fantasy still determine their meaning for us today?


In Dreams of the Burning Child I address such questions by describing what must surely be Western culture’s oddest couple, the deified father and the sacrificial son. In doing so I assume, as my initial questions imply, that the rule of fathers requires such offerings. One reason for this requirement may be that in a special way, blood sacrifice meets the general need of any social order for powerful forms of self-representation. The historical importance of literature and other art forms owes much to the fact that imaginary unities—nations, estates, lineages, regimes—exist primarily in, and as, visual or verbal representations of themselves. But how is a patriarchal and patrilineal society to represent its specifically father-centered character? Paternity is naturally invisible; unlike maternity, it has no distinct bodily form. Patrilineal patriarchy therefore turns what might be a neutral or insignificant empirical fact—the invisibility of biological fatherhood—into a structural crisis. This form of socially constructed authority, unlike others that might exist, generates a demand for representations of an object that does not exist and cannot be visualized: the body of fatherhood.


According to one theory, rituals of blood sacrifice compensate for the formal embarrassment of fatherhood’s inability to represent itself. Karen E. Fields, summarizing the work of the anthropologist Nancy Jay, explains the connection:

Turning the lens toward ancient Greek, Israelite, and Roman sacrifice, toward Tallensi, Nuer, Hawaiian, and Ashanti sacrifice, Nancy Jay shows how, in unrelated settings, sacrificial ritual enacts patrilineal descent. The important idea is not simply that patrilineal descent is widely associated with sacrifice, the affinity that Robertson Smith noticed, but that patrilineal descent is socially organized and publicly achieved. Thus: Roman descent was established not by birth but by participation in the sacrificial cult. The Tallensi told their ethnographer that clan ties were a consequence of sacrificing together. The Nuer defined patrilineal kin as those who shared the meat of sacrifice. Demosthenes won a probate suit for a man whose patrilineal right to inherit was contested by demonstrating that, years before, no one had contested the man’s placing of a sacrifice upon the clan altar. And so on and so on. Kinship through the male line is not a biological relation which people merely acknowledge or of which they only need remind themselves in ritual. It is a social relation. Patrilineal kin know they are kin because they sacrifice together; they become patrilineal kin by so doing. To so create social and religious paternity is precisely to transcend a natural relation.[1]

Blood sacrifice appears in this view as a technology of representation, a way to make paternity spectacular and so to foster its social reality.


Jay’s account opposes sacrifice to the maternal power of childbirth, but it doesn’t require that we see these practices as evidence for some primal dread of the female body. I take it for granted that whatever values or affects may attach to bodies, to their functions and differences, these are not primordial but socially created. The invisibility of fatherhood may be natural, but the structural crisis to which this invisibility leads is socially produced: the body of fatherhood doesn’t exist in nature, but it is missing only from patriarchal culture. In principle this distinction is simple enough, but it has far-reaching consequences for our ways of thinking about gender and kinship. The critique of classical psychoanalysis reminds us that Freud’s theory of castration anxiety makes sense only because its view of the female body is already male, already phallic. To take this imaginary scene as the origin of phallic masculinity is therefore circular. I make a similar point about the maternal body. In fact, my argument links the fatherly body to the female genitals in a way that, if counterintuitive, is nevertheless quite logical: both are culturally determined “absences” that cannot sensibly be posited as origins of the values that determine them. Each takes the body of the other as a point of contrast: the swelling of the maternal belly determines the nothingness of fatherhood just as that of the penis defines what Hamlet will call the “no-thing” between a maid’s legs. But these contrasts are neither natural nor universal. They belong to the cultural grammar of social systems that privilege fatherhood and therefore need to symbolize it. Only within such systems could the existence of un-pregnant men or penisless women be imagined as a source of psychic trauma.


Jay’s theory of blood sacrifice is fundamental to my argument, but it leaves open two crucial questions: why should there be human sacrifice, and what is the special significance of sacrificing a son? These are not questions to be answered at once and then dismissed. The scandal of human sacrifice has troubled both theology and anthropology. One long-standing interpretation of the akedah (the binding of Isaac) takes this episode from the Book of Genesis as enjoining the substitution of animals for human sacrificial victims—a reassuring but untenable response to the text, as Jon D. Levenson has argued.[2] Virgil’s Aeneid, by contrast, opens and closes with a reversal of this pattern, substituting human victims for the animals that would have been sacrificed, had sanctioned rituals not been disrupted by conflict.[3] Anthropological theory has almost always stressed one or another logic of substitution as central to the economy of sacrifice; if animal victims are surrogates for the humans who offer them, then the possibility of reversing this substitution inheres in the system itself. This remains true, as Joseph Conrad reminds us, even for a culture in which “enlightened” Christian sacraments have long since replaced blood sacrifice. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,”says Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But somewhere along the path that leads from “The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” to the depths of the Congo, Kurtz’s “nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself” (50-51). Whatever else may be signified by Kurtz’s notorious last words (“The horror! The horror!”), they acknowledge the persistence of something unspeakable in the dark heart of European Christianity, something that Marlow gathers reluctantly and can’t quite bring himself to say. “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).


But why should this horror take sons as its special objects? In classical, Hebrew, and Christian cultures, the son offered in sacrifice provokes worship, fascination, and dread. The son in these traditions acts as a complement to the father, as his ideological reflector, and, ultimately, as an index of the contradictions inherent in fatherhood under patriarchy. He is thus at once the father’s mirror and his undoing. On one hand, a son is indispensable “proof” of fatherhood, for only a male heir can extend the patriline. On the other hand, his existence provokes the crisis of fatherhood’s uncertainty, for there is no way to see that any particular boy springs from this or that man, or any man at all. If the fatherly body existed, it would join the male progenitor to his heirs; since it does not, they can be joined only disjunctively, through the testimony of the mother-wife and in the abstract, corporate “body” of the lineage-group.  In the words of Fields, again, “Kinship through the male line . . . is a social relation.” But if blood sacrifice in some mysterious way substantiates the otherwise merely notional patriline, displaying its reality in the opened body of the victim, then filial sacrifice goes to the heart of this mystery, forcing its paradox to the breaking point by offering up, in the first-born son, the very body that creates fatherhood in the full patriarchal and patrilineal sense. The father who sacrifices a son—especially a first-born son, most especially an only son—would seem to be destroying along with that son the very paternity the ritual is supposed to create.[4] How can fatherhood thrive on what appears to be self-destruction? I argue in Dreams of the Burning Child that the binding of Isaac, which sets forth this paradox so unforgettably, forces its contradiction to a crisis resolved by the deification of fatherhood in Yahweh. As a prototype of filial sacrifice, Isaac embodies in radical form both the structural dilemmas of the filial relation and their narrative resolution.


Sacrificial sons are a special instance of the practice of representing boys. Like blood sacrifice in ritual cultures, literary and artistic images of boys have regularly sought to compensate for the natural invisibility of fatherhood. In this sense all boys become “sons,” called upon to signify a generic identification with the fatherly ideal.  For this reason, they almost always bear some traces of the figurative topos that Ernst Robert Curtius names the puer senex, or boy/old man (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 98-107). This affinity between the sacrificial son and the puer senex is a major theme in Dreams of the Burning Child. Its most complete statement comes in chapter 4 with Dickens's little Paul Dombey, a quaintly “old-fashioned” boy who succumbs to figurative progeria, rushed into the grave by his father's impatience for him to grow up. [5] But as I show in chapter 2, these figures are already linked in Virgil’s Aeneid, where the “elderly boy” first emerges as the characteristic trope of dynastic historicism.


The father who corresponds to these boys is often imagined gazing down on the scene of sacrifice or, in the case of Dickens’s Mr. Dombey, looking on from the shadows, feeling at once proprietary and excluded. In the Iliad, Priam watches helplessly from the walls of Troy, lamenting his own destruction in the fate of Hector; Zeus, too, looks down weeping on the fate of Sarpedon but does not dare to intervene. The Aeneid is filled with sons who die ante ora parentum, before their fathers’ eyes. [6] Christianity avoids this scene. Jesus does ask from the cross why God has forsaken him, but neither the Gospels nor the iconographic tradition shows the Father looking down to behold his son’s suffering; that is the role of the Virgin Mother in pietàs.  The exception is a set of Calvinist texts in the sixteenth century, retellings of the Passion that describe a vengefully sadistic God presiding over the Crucifixion. [7] In general, however, to be a father in the literary tradition is to bear witness to the destruction of the son, and to see in his death at once the essence and the destruction of fatherhood itself. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so resonant in part because of the way it doubles and reverses this ancient motif, staging the father’s destruction for the son and the son’s destruction for the theater audience. Shifting the pathos of old Priam’s death onto his sorrowing queen, the Player’s speech in act 2 treats the witness of the gods as a question: Do they see? Do they care? In response Hamlet links this wrenching appeal to equally mysterious questions about the power of dramatic empathy: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to [Hecuba], / That he should weep for her?” (2.2.558-5 9). [8] The emotional force of this scenario carries through the pathetic death scenes of Dickens’s child martyrs to the dream of the burning child in Freud, where the question of the father's witness emerges once again with arresting force: “Father, don't you see I'm burning?”[9]


The notion of witnessing proves central to my understanding of how fathers are linked to sons. This is a crucial point, for the subject of this book is not a figure, a topos, or even a tradition. It is not empirical at all, for what I take up are historically diverse responses to the absence of an empirical “body” for fatherhood. Repeatedly, I have found that to grasp these responses it is necessary to trace in texts and works of art the implied cultural transactions in which they are caught up. These transactions involve exchanges of meaning and desire within a symbolic economy of witnessing. For this reason the horizon my argument looks toward must in principle be a plausible literary and cultural genealogy for this economy, even though I can realistically expect only to sketch the genealogy while illustrating in some detail what it might mean to analyze the economy’s workings.


Patrilineal patriarchies recruit sacrificial victims as visible stand-ins for the fatherly body; post-sacrifical cultures represent filial sacrifices and display the images of boys for much the same purpose.  “Witnessing” proves crucial to all these transactions because although the spectacle can be observed, its connection to the patriline cannot.  Dismembering an animal and burning its flesh do not supply the kind of evidence we get from DNA samples.  (Nor does scientific testing establish fatherhood as an object of belief.  It may establish fatherhood as a scientific fact, but only by reaffirming science itself as the ultimate object of belief, one that depends on an experimental economy of witnessing.)   Ritual, then, secures the patriline only for a witnessing community that already in some sense “knows” patrifiliation to be what the sacrifice “means.”  This knowledge takes intuitive form as a perception—one you may inhabit or view from without, depending on whether you stand inside or outside the community in question.  This condensing of a whole system of cultural relations into a highly charged perception is what distinguishes witnessing from empirical seeing.  Unless such a synthetic perception is already laid up in the community’s store of shared intuitions, ritual actions will be powerless to transform the still-warm flesh of a sacrificial victim into visible proof of the kinship system and the gods who authorize it. 


Sacrifice in a strict anthropological sense is not a prominent feature of the works I consider. The akedah is a narrative of averted human sacrifice, the death of Jesus a political execution reinterpreted as sacrificial; the battlefield deaths of Greek and Roman warrior-sons are sacrifices in metaphor only, while the deaths of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Mamillius and Dickens’s little Paul Dombey extend the notion further. The cultural functions of these works, however, may be seen to elaborate the purposes that anthropological theory ascribes to sacrifice. Rituals not only make descent through the father visible; they also articulate the structure of kinship and locate the participant in that structure. The most ambitious literary texts take as their objects of representation social and political structures built on patricentric kinship relations, weighing the religious and historical dimensions of social order against its personal costs. They, too, tend to situate their viewers or readers socially; but at the same time they also reflect on the technologies employed by their cultures to “interpellate” the social subject. In this sense, such works are not only post-sacrificial, they are meta-sacrificial: they open up for scrutiny the role played by sacrificial myth in organizing the repertoire of fantasies that guide desiring subjects toward their places in the social order.


I demonstrate this proposition in readings of major works by Virgil, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Surrounding and informing these chapters are discussions of many other texts and artifacts, but for extended treatment I have singled out works distinguished by their cultural prestige, historical longevity, and emotional resonance, written by authors whose careers have shaped the idea of literature so forcibly that they come, through a kind of metalepsis, to stand for it. Their status is not immutable, as the example of Virgil shows: his poetry helped lay the foundations for classical, medieval, and modem European culture, but since the nineteenth century his centrality has so diminished that many of these observations no longer apply to him in quite the same way as they once did. Shakespeare and Dickens are popular icons yet; in their aura we seek a reassuring convergence of highbrow prestige and universal appeal. They also personify for our “official" culture the belief that the human imagination is a radically creative genius or indwelling spirit. They thus stand for both the shaping spirit and its artifacts, linking the artwork to its vital human origins in a wishful denial of its commodification. The idea of the great artist assures us, through this powerful tautology, that truth and beauty are fully intended and fully available in the literary masterwork, the utmost expression of our will to be human. 


A second reason for my choice of authors has to do with the historical predicaments to which they were responding. Anthropological models imply that ritual practices should be most efficacious in stable settings, yet their modern history is one of crisis, conflict, and disruption. In this book I try to gain some perspective on the longue durée of Western culture by zeroing in on epochal shifts in the social and political order. Virgil’s Aeneid stands poised between the civil wars that brought an end to the Roman Republic and the consolidation of power under Caesar Augustus near the end of the first century B.C.E. Shakespeare’s plays respond to the consolidation of political power under the Tudors, to economic changes fostered by the early period of mercantile capitalism, and to the bloody culture wars triggered by the splitting of the religious community in the English Reformation—developments that were crucial in different ways to the emergence of the professional theater in London at the end of the sixteenth century. The novels of Charles Dickens captured the attention of Victorian England just as publishing was undergoing its own industrial revolution, driven by the steam-powered press and the mass production of paper. At the same time, England was struggling to absorb the broader economic shocks of industrialization and the political repercussions of the French Revolution, while the evangelical revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was losing momentum to a new wave of Enlightenment skepticism, fostered by the growing prestige of experimental science and by such prophets of secular culture as Carlyle and Arnold.


Virgil, Shakespeare, and Dickens have been taken up as holy places of humanism—not just canonical but hypercanonical, in the sense that the very idea of a literary classic draws on their enduring prestige. They also offer powerful and original renditions of the underlying myth of filial sacrifice, reformulating it in the aftermath of global shocks to the social order. Is there a connection? Have these works become hypercanonical because they respond to crisis—the Roman civil wars, the Reformation, the combined French and Industrial revolutions—by reinventing the repertoire of sacrificial gestures, re-centering the symbolic economies of their cultures around the quintessential myth of patriarchy? Such a hypothesis cannot become a theory in the strong sense because it isn’t provable, but I pursue it as speculation. If there were a connection between these authors’ iconic status in the official culture and the force with which their major works reconceive economies of filial sacrifice, what would the connection be? If we align these authors according to such a supposition, how are we led to view them? Is the result a plausible and enlightening description of their work?


In pursuing this speculation we must not oversimplify the larger narrative in which these moments of crisis arise.  To speak of a symbolic economy is an expository convenience, for at any given moment there are many social and cultural venues, all depending on local custom and circumstance.  The effort to consolidate or impose a common culture in fact belongs to the project of empire- or nation-building, and it proceeds against the resistance of the provinces.  Even within the culture of the court or metropolis, different institutions foster different practices and engage in different ways with state power, market forces, and the range of tastes associated with learned, elite, or popular audiences.  As the term “economy” implies, there are established patterns of production and circulation for cultural artifacts, conventional transactions through which meanings are exchanged and pleasures generated.  But as the term also implies, these systems are open-ended and dynamic, subject to contingency and thriving on innovation.  It is for this reason, I believe, that sacrificial narrative and symbol are so crucial.  They are prominent because they are potent, whether one’s goal is to establish a canon or transform it, to break in or to break out.


Many of the authors and works I discuss are connected by specific paths of transmission, and thus may be said to form links in an active tradition. Virgil systematically imitates Homer, and Shakespeare places Hamlet in this epic patriline with the Player’s speech of act 2. He had almost certainly read and translated book 2 of the Aeneid in grammar school; he would also have known Sackville’s verses on the death of Priam in the “Induction” to A Mirror for Magistrates and Marlowe’s treatment of the scene in Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dickens of course knew Shakespeare’s plays intimately both as a reader and as a theatergoer, but there is probably a more important, if less direct, link between the two authors by way of the evangelical tradition. I argue that in Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare is responding as powerfully to the Reformation, exemplified in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, as he is to classical epic or popular romance. Dickens, as is well known, takes over his child martyrs from latter-day evangelical works such as The Repository Tracts, late eighteenth-century descendants of Foxe’s martyrology. [10] Sigmund Freud, finally, was an enthusiastic reader of both Virgil and Shakespeare. He takes the epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams (“Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo”) from book 7 of the Aeneid, alluding to the infernal furor that enters the poem through Allecto and overtakes Aeneas himself in the end; and he broaches the Oedipus complex by pairing his reading of Sophocles’ play with an equally forceful interpretation of Hamlet.


Specific, demonstrable connections of this sort are only part of the history this book describes, however; some of the most striking patterns that emerge are of a different sort. Dombey and Son offers many examples of such patterns, for without apparently trying to do so Dickens has encompassed a virtual encyclopedia of the figures and motifs associated with filial sacrifice. In part, no doubt, this achievement reflects his prodigious appropriation of the ideal known to classical and humanist rhetoricians as amplification, for which Dickens had economic as well as artistic incentives. But the expansive impulse by itself could scarcely enable an author to reproduce a detailed, well-ordered anthology of traditional themes and figures that he does not appear to have studied.


Take the puer/puella senex topos, for example. Dombey and Son is typical of Dickens in its proliferation of elderly boys, childish old men, girlish old women, and maternal girls. No previous writer works this motif so exhaustively as he has done. Since Dickens, like Shakespeare, was a popular artist who lacked a university education, criticism has tended to underestimate the range and sophistication of his reading. But even if we acknowledge his familiarity with Latin literature, the multiplication of such characters in his work probably does not suggest that he was deeply moved by Virgil, or preoccupied with the late classical authors studied by Curtius. On the contrary, allusions to the Romans in Dombey and Son are consistently facetious, casting this “fierce people” as the persecutors of oppressed schoolboys wracked by declamations and declensions.


Dombey and Son is also marked by striking parallels to The Winter’s Tale: in each, the dynastic heir is destroyed by his father’s obsession; the mother is falsely branded with adultery; and the daughter is first cast out but then recovered from beyond the seas, redeeming the blasted patriarch and mending his broken dynasty through marriage to a new heir (Gager 12-13). We know that Dickens was close to William Macready, the preeminent Shakespearean actor of the day, and saw Macready’s influential performance as Leontes. Yet in spite of Dickens’s predilection for mimicking Shakespeare’s turns of phrase, there are no specific allusions to The Winter’s Tale in Dombey and Son. The plays that echo in the text are Macbeth, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra. In short, there is no evidence of any kind that Dickens modeled his novel on the play. Both in his use of the puer senex motif and in his transformation of Shakespeare’s romance plot, he appears rather to have recreated narrative and figurative patterns inherent in the symbolic economy that links fathers and sons. He seems to have rediscovered these venerable topics in his own idiom and for his own artistic purposes.


Of all these recurring topics, by far the most compelling is the burning child. Its arresting figure appears in the sacrificial children of Hebrew scripture, in Virgil’s Ascanius with his halo of fire, and again in Statius’ lament at the funeral pyre of his adopted son, as he watches “the cruel flames creep over the fresh down of the dead boy” (V.v.20-21). We encounter the burning child in a gruesome episode from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, illustrated by a notorious woodcut, and in “the pretty Babe all burning bright” of Robert Southwell’s Christmas poem. It returns in The Winter’s Tale, where Shakespeare’s Leontes at the height of his madness orders Antigonus to “see” the infant Perdita “instantly consum’d with fire” (2.3.134); and it returns in Milton’s haunted recollection of Moloch, the “children’s cries unheard, that passed through fire / To his grim idol” (Paradise Lost 1.395-6). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, this same figure reappears in the consumptive child martyrs of evangelical melodrama, burning with their providential fevers. These lurid children, “passed through fire” to the Christian God, pass the fires of imaginary martyrdom on to their literary heirs—children such as Dickens’s little Paul Dombey, toasting by the hearthside “as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin” (49). Last in this series is the burning child of The Interpretation of Dreams, my source for the title and the lead epigraph of this book.


Patterns like this one, too insistent to be accidental yet clearly not the result of conscious imitation, call for a different order of explanation. I return to this issue in chapter 6; for now I simply want to note how resourcefully my topic resists capture by any of the histories (or historicisms) it includes. In defiance of such boundaries, the motif of filial sacrifice leads to a range of materials, “literary” in the broad sense, from the burning child in the last chapter of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams to the first book of the Hebrew scriptures. This backward chronology is more apt than it may initially seem, for the sacrificial son and the puer senex are figures of temporal reversal. The reversal is not arbitrary, although motivations for it may vary. Paradoxically, temporal reversal is intrinsic to historicism itself as a belated and retrospective mode of knowing, a point which the ur-historicist Virgil initially (and conclusively) demonstrates. It also embodies the wish that time might really run backward, as it does for the souls of the dead in Plato, Virgil, and Spenser.


We know that in this world, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, turning sons into fathers and fathers into dust. But as Hamlet says to Polonius, “Yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward” (2.2.202-04). The syntax of this assertion is out of joint; propping the confidence of shall upon the counterfactual whimsy of if you could, it reverses and dismantles the if-then logic of normative predication. Does this make it an exceptional or even meaningless utterance—or might it somehow be normative on a more rarified level? Language, like the unconscious and unlike the aging process, always does move in both ways at once, predicating a past and a future on which the hypothesis or fantasy of its presence depends. [11] In writing as in dreams, incompatible temporalities collide; the sacrificial son, not only a creature of the unconscious but also an essentially literary thing, is imbued with fantasies of writing as a way out of death. For this reason, he occupies a special relation to the modern concept of authorship, as I argue in chapter 5. It has often been observed that our cultural ideal of authorship is both implicitly masculine and implicitly divine: the canonical author is a male parthenogeneticist, embodying his fictional universe in a godlike solitary act and then pronouncing it good. But to grasp the full import of this commonplace, it is necessary to remember that the link in our culture between masculinity and godhead is filial sacrifice. That is to say, the cost of deification is very high.


The core of this book, in chapters 2 through 4, considers Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale, and Dickens’s Dombey and Son. In each case I try not only to interpret a literary text but also to describe that text’s engagement with a symbolic economy of sacrificial witnessing. Chapter 1 surveys the broader context to which these discussions belong. It illustrates the general proposition that cultural artifacts tend to encode (and so to perpetuate) specific economies of witnessing, and it introduces the narrative, rhetorical, and pictorial motifs that characterize the sacrificial son and related figures in biblical, classical, and iconographic traditions. The three chapters on works by hypercanonical authors are then followed by the fifth chapter’s speculations about a sacrificial subtext underlying the concept of authorship. In chapter 6, I turn back to the sacrificial son’s uncanny ubiquity, reconsidering the challenges it presents to historicist explanations.


In all of the following chapters I approach the materials under discussion as a textual critic, taking cues from anthropology and psychoanalysis for the practice of literary study. The focus is on narrative and symbolic motifs in English literature along with its classical and biblical antecedents; my treatment of works in other media, whether painting, sculpture, photography, or architecture, reflects the methods of literary interpretation. Without attempting a comprehensive survey of the topic, I nevertheless do try to understand its historical persistence and cultural centrality. Accordingly I have chosen (at the risk of hyperextending my scholarly expertise) to offer a very broad, if necessarily selective, range of discussion. Readers are asked to follow lines of speculation that run from Abraham and Isaac through the Gospels of the New Testament and Michelangelo’s first Pieta to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, from Virgil’s Aeneid through Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, and from Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Sonne” to Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Jacques Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. At the same time, many of these speculations wind through episodes of close textual analysis and historical argument, for I hold that ideas have not really been explored until they are tested against complexities of circumstance and subtleties of figuration.


My hope is that readers of the book will want to explore its ideas further, testing and revising them in the study of other subjects. Work of this kind is by no means disinterested, though its motives may vary. One of them, I suppose, is the long-term project of detaching scholarship itself from the ideological structures of patriarchy and patriliny. This may be more difficult than it seems, for we are always ambiguously caught up in the texts we analyze—no less in deploring what we take to be their politics than in admiring their cunning or their beauty. As I suggest in chapter 6, criticism bears an intriguing resemblance to the Freudian model of mourning, with its gradual and imperfect reconstruction of one’s relation to a lost object. In terms of this analogy, the project to which I should like to imagine this book contributing might be thought of as a collective work of mourning. It would be an academic work of mourning for the dead body of patriarchy; for although it was never alive, never even there at all, I believe we are still, even now, somehow its subjects.


[1] Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever, xiii. I prefer Jay’s approach to the more established theories of René Girard in Violence and the Sacred or Walter Burkert in Homo Necans. Both Girard and Burkert offer myths of origin that are themselves sacrificial ideologies, as Jay observes in her chapter “Theories of Sacrifice” (131). Girard claims to identify the origin of all social and cultural difference, indeed of meaning itself, despite the logical impossibility of doing so from within the sphere of difference created by that origin. The resulting argument is not only deeply unappealing in its sheer hubris; it is also universalistic and reductive in a way that ultimately impoverishes analysis. A good example of both the value and the limitations of this approach is Cesário Bandera’s “Sacrificial Levels in Virgil's Aeneid”: Girard’s theory enables Bandera to recognize that a Lucretian critique of sacrificial religion is implicit in the Aeneid, and this is a major contribution to modem understanding of the poem; but his reading soon flattens out into an allegorizing demonstration that the poem illustrates the theory. Burkert offers a succinct summary of his own myth of origins: “I have attempted to derive sacrificial ritual from Paleolithic hunting” (“The Problem of Ritual Killing,” 164). The problem with this theory is simple: as Jay observes with equal succinctness, “Hunter-gatherers do not sacrifice” (131). Jonathan Z. Smith makes the same observation:  “The Paleolithic indications for sacrifice are dubious.  I know of no unambiguous instances of animal sacrifice performed by hunters.  Animal sacrifice appears to be, universally, the ritual killing of a domesticated animal by agrarian or pastoralist societies (“The Domestication of Sacrifice,” 197, italics in original).  Finally, and for my purposes most crucially, both theories are vitiated by the gender blindness that leads them, in Jay’s words, to “present sacrifice in terms of a universal human nature, including gender relations determined by biologically given male violence” (133), with the result that “human evolution” emerges in both theories as “the achievement of males only” (132).


[2] See The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: “The cumulative evidence against the ubiquitous idea that the aqedah opposes child sacrifice and substitutes an animal cult is overwhelming” (113). Levenson traces the lingering-on of the sacrificial motif in beloved-son narratives from Isaac to Jesus.


[3] Philip Hardie offers this observation in the best account of sacrifice in the Aeneid and its Latin successors; see The Epic Successors of Virgil, 19-20.


[4] Robert Con Davis argues in The Paternal Romance that the sacrificing father “usurps (or attempts to usurp) god’s position and ends up negating paternity over three generations, culminating in an act of theocide” (101). I argue the reverse: the contradiction between divine and human paternity sustains God’s fatherhood by destroying that of the human father, which is then reinstituted as an extension of God’s.


[5] “Old fashioned” is a dialect term meaning precocious (OED 3); for a discussion of the meanings this phrase accumulates in the novel, see Malcolm Andrews, Dickens and the Grown-up Child, 125-34. For the notion that Paul suffers from progeria, see Terry J. Box, “Young Paul Dombey.”


[6] Os means “mouth”; the word for “eyes” is oculis. The figurative or transferred use of os for “sight” is common, as Lewis & Short attests, but as Marshall Grossman has pointed out to me, the word probably also carries the sense of “countenance,” and as the root of oratio, it glances at the father’s or the son’s pleading for clemency. M. Owen Lee, Fathers and Sons in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” comments on the use of this phrase as a “leitmotif” in the poem. He sees the death of Pallas in book 10 as exemplary: “We have in the death of Pallas a summary [of] and comment on the Aeneid itself, which is the story of a hero who went to fulfill his destined role in history with his father on his shoulders and his son at his side, and whose eventual success, never reached in the compass of the poem, is dependent on the sacrificial deaths of many surrogate sons” (6­7).


[7] See Debora Kuller Shuger, “The Death of Christ,” in The Renaissance Bible, 89-127.  I return to this point in chapter 3.


[8] The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al.


[9] See The Interpretation of Dreams 547-8.


[10] John R. Knott discusses Foxe’s centrality for the nonconformist tradition, and for the Protestant model of heroic suffering generally, in Discourses of Martyrdom.


[11] For a more detailed demonstration of this point, see my essay “Spenser and the Gaze of Glory" in Edmund Spenser's Poetry, ed. Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott, New York: Norton, 1993, 756-64.


Works Cited

Andrews, Malcolm. Dickens and the Grown-up Child. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Bandera, Cesário. "Sacrificial Levels in Virgil's Aeneid." Arethusa 14 (1981): 217-39.

Box, Terry J. "Young Paul Dombey: A Case of Progeria." Artes Liberales 9 (1983): 17-21.

Burkert, Walter. "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 131-74.

——. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Translated by Peter Bing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

——. "The Problem of Ritual Killing." In Hamerton-Kelly 149-76.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, edited by Robert Kimbrough. Norton Critical Edition. Second Edition. New York: Norton, 1971.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard Trask. Bollingen Series 36. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Davis, Robert Con. The Paternal Romance: Reading God-the-Father in Early Western Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Evans, G. Blakemore, et al. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Avon, 1971.

Gager, Valerie L. Shakespeare and Dickens: The Dynamics of Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G., ed. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Hardie, Philip. The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition. Roman Literature and its Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Jay, Nancy. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Knott, John R. Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563-1694. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lee, M. Owen. Fathers and Sons in Virgil's Aeneid: Tum Genitor Natum. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979.

Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Miller, David Lee. "Spenser and the Gaze of Glory." In Edmund Spenser's Poetry, ed. Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1993, 756-64.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "The Domestication of Sacrifice." In Hamerton-Kelly 191-205.

Shuger, Debora Kuller. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Statius. Statius, with an English translation by J.H. Mozley. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1928; rpt. 1955.



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