Essay: Paternity and Intertextuality in Christine Dixie's The Binding by Dr. Deborah Seddon

19 May 2018

Paternity and Intertextuality in Christine Dixie’s The Binding

Dr. Deborah Seddon

 

In this essay Deborah Seddon, a Senior lecturer in the English Department at Rhodes University explores the relationship between the images and the  text-based narratives Dixie invokes in her installation The Binding, arguing that,”… one of the most startling effects of The Binding is Dixie’s achievement of the visual equivalent of a narrative intertextuality. This intertextuality might be said to operate in Dixie’s exhibition as an extended metaphor for patriarchal paternity itself; in which the evidence of kinship is not always readily apparent and thus must be produced.”

 

Seddon draws on The Binding to examine the wider psychological and cultural impact of this lost body of fatherhood. In relation to stories interwoven into ‘The Binding’. She examines the story of the Aqedah, or the binding of Isaac from Chapters 22 and 23 of the book of Genesis; the dream Sigmund Freud recounts in Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams; Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale.

 

 

Paternity and Intertextuality in Christine Dixie’s The Binding

 

Deborah Seddon, English Department, Rhodes University 

 

 

And he said ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing that thou has not withheld thy son, thine only son from me’. (Genesis 22: 12)

 

In her notes on her recent exhibition, The Binding, Christine Dixie observes that this work was birthed from the bodily and artistic experiences of her previous exhibition, Parturient Prospects (2006), which centred on motherhood. For instance, in the series of works entitled ‘Projection,’ photographs of Dixie’s relatives in the maternal line were projected onto an image of her own pregnant body to highlight how an expected child is viewed as part of a network of kinship entailing both biological and familial inheritance. But if Parturient Prospects focused on the birth of Dixie’s daughter Rosalie, The Binding bears witness to the experience of Dixie’s six-year old son, Daniel, and his inchoate attempts to inhabit his gendered role. Dixie observes that her work towards The Binding began to take shape with her realization that “the flagrant visibility of my pregnant body, its excess” seemed in stark contrast to the body of the father of her child, for whom “the outward signs of eminent fatherhood” were “noticeably absent.” The Binding examines the wider psychological and cultural impact of this lost body of fatherhood. Using her own son as a model, Dixie makes reference to key texts of Western culture which illustrate how the invisibility of paternity is, in fact, key to the establishment of patriarchal masculinities – an absence which is resolved through the actual or symbolic sacrifice of the son. Dixie asserts that “the ritual of sacrifice which seems intrinsically linked to the establishment of male identity and the unspoken central role of the mother as witness to the father-son relationship, is at the heart of this exhibition.”

As David Bunn has observed, Christine Dixie has made “a philosophical habit of juxtaposing one story against another, leaving the viewer with a sense that they are caught at the intersection of contending narratives” (4). As I will explore in this essay, one of the most startling effects of The Binding is Dixie’s achievement of the visual equivalent of a narrative intertextuality. This intertextuality might be said to operate in Dixie’s exhibition as an extended metaphor for patriarchal paternity itself; in which the evidence of kinship is not always readily apparent and thus must be produced.  

At the entrance to The Binding, the viewer is specifically asked to frame their attention to Dixie’s installation by means of the stories told by books.  Pages from The King James Bible relating the story of the aqedah, or the binding of Isaac, in Chapters 22 and 23 of the book of Genesis, and pages from Chapter Seven of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in which he retells the dream of the burning child, are scanned and framed on the wall immediately as one enters the gallery space. The binding of Isaac is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament because it establishes God’s covenant with Abraham. As a reward for his absolute obedience, his willingness to sacrifice his only son if commanded to do so, God makes Abraham the father to a multitude of nations.  The dream of the burning child has been remarked on by many commentators as one of the most moving and vivid of the dreams related by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. It is not Freud’s dream but one told to him by a female patient who herself encountered it in a lecture. She then redreams it so as to make it her own. Freud relates this dream at the outset of Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams, also making it his own, in order to demonstrate his understanding of the action of dreamwork in melding together both latent and manifest content, including the effect of external stimuli on the dreamer:

 

A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle.                                                                                   

The meaning of this affecting dream is simple enough, and the explanation given by the lecturer, as my patient reported it, was correct. The bright light shining through the open door on to the sleeper’s eyes gave him the impression which he would have received had he been awake: namely, that a fire had been started near the corpse by a falling candle. It is quite possible that he had taken into his sleep his anxiety lest the aged watcher should not be equal to his task. (Freud 513)

 

The prosaic uses to which Freud puts this dream in his analysis do nothing to reduce its powerful effect on the reader in his retelling of it. The dream speaks of loss, grief, and anxiety over a tragedy that has already happened: with his corpse on fire in the other room the child in the dream beseeches the sleeping father for his attention.

The story of the aqedah from Genesis 22 has provoked discussion, and often unease, in generations of Talmudic and Biblical scholars, philosophers, and feminists. The ethics of Abraham’s decision are complex. God intervenes at the last minute, providing a ram in the bushes for Abraham to sacrifice instead his son, but the fact remains that Isaac’s father follows God’s instructions up until the moment when the angel speaks from the sky. Whether Abraham fought with himself internally as he walked up the mountain with his son we are not told. And what of Isaac? He asks his father: “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). But when the boy eventually realized that it is he who is to be sacrificed, what was his response? Did he ask any further questions? Did he struggle and shout as his father began to bind him with the rope on the altar? Or when his father reached for the knife? We are not told. The biblical narrative contains a curious lack of human detail:

 

And then they came to the place that God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him upon the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took a knife to slay his son. (Genesis 22: 9-10)

 

What prompts Abraham to choose his God over his kin? What kind of God would ask such a sacrifice of a father? What kind of father acquiesces to such a request? My engagement with Christine Dixie’s The Binding has returned me to such questions as her exhibition explores the meaning of paternity within a Judeo-Christian framework and the consequences of patriarchy for masculine identity and for the father-son bond.

If Genesis is silent about Isaac’s reaction it is also silent about Sarah’s. Isaac’s mother Sarah is remembered as the woman who laughs when told, in her old age, that she is to give birth to a son. After the story of the aqedah in Chapter 22 of Genesis, the very next chapter opens with Sarah’s death, which some feminist scholars have read as a comment on her reaction to God’s covenant with Abraham. As Nancy Jay has pointed out, the aqedah, in a very important sense, concerns traces of a clash between matrilineal and patrilineal structures of descent and inheritance in Semitic tradition. Jay suggests that “Isaac, on the edge of death, receives his life not by birth from his mother but by the hand of his father as directed by God” (102). 

As David Lee Miller notes: “the body of fatherhood doesn’t exist in nature, but it is missing only from patriarchal culture” and this has “far-reaching consequences for our ways of thinking about gender and kinship” (3). Miller suggests that the story of the aqedah in the Book of Genesis is a paradigmatic text in which the very lack within patriarchal paternity (the absence of a body) actually produces its own symbolic power. Abraham’s act of obedience is chilling because it is a cancellation by his own hand of the human father-son bond. The name Abraham means “exalted father” and God’s promise to make Abraham the progenitor of Israel is based “on the paradoxical condition that Abraham sacrifice his status as father, affirming in the most absolute way that Isaac and the generations enfolded within him, belong not to Abraham but to God” (18). Once he has surrendered his status as human father, Miller suggests, Abraham can then take on the status as Patriarch, authorised in this power by the principle of absolute paternity, personified by God (18).

A third key text at work in Dixie’s exhibition I would suggest, though it is not as overtly referenced, is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is evoked in two of the titles given to the series of six prints of a small boy which hang side by side on the facing wall: the first of which is entitled “to sleep” and the last, “to dream.” In both the placement of the prints and in their titles, a quotation from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “to be or not to be, that is the question,” (3.1.56) is interrupted, both literally and figuratively, by the story of the aqedah and the dream of the burning child – by images of a young boy which evoke not only sleep but death:

 

To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. (3.1. 64-66)

 

Dixie’s series of six prints – each an image of a boy child – work together to evoke an intertextual visualization of the sacrificial fantasy that establishes the law of the Father. In the first print in the series, entitled “bind,” the boy is wrapped tightly in cloth, only his head and his feet are free. His eyes closed, he could be asleep or dead; he is swaddled like a baby but also bound like a corpse or a sacrificial victim. The print entitled “offering” again evokes the collapse of the boy-child into the sacrificial offering, or Lamb of God. In “offering,” echoing his posture of “bind,” the boy child lies on his back, his eyes closed but this time he is covered with a hide. The whiteness of the paper and the technique of blind embossing evoke the tactility of wool. Between them, in a print entitled “burning,” the child is awake. It is the only print in the series in which he returns our gaze. His palms open, his arms by his sides, his head slightly tilted, the boy’s eyes look back at the viewer with an intensity of expression which seems both to beseech and accuse us. His look is direct; an implicit appeal to the father to wake and see: Father, don’t you see that I am burning? If, as viewer, in returning the gaze of this boy, we are placed in the position of the father – a dreaming father meeting the eyes of a dead child who comes in a dream to tell him he is burning – we can also identify with the position of the boy. The six prints on the wall work together as a form of visual intertextuality as Dixie binds together stories from Genesis, Freud, and Shakespeare: three texts which examine the bond between the deified father and the sacrificial son.

               At the centre of Hamlet is a relationship between a father and his son. Hamlet is left bereft by the death of his beloved father, whom he views as a man above all others: God-like, irreplaceable, and irreproachable.  His disgust for womankind develops from what Hamlet views as his mother’s infidelity to such a man in her remarriage to his uncle Claudius mere months after his father’s death. Hamlet’s grief is further complicated by the advent of the Ghost. Throughout the play the identity of the Ghost is problematised. It is unclear whether the Ghost is a devil who “hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.588-9) or is indeed Hamlet’s “father’s spirit,/ Doomed for a certain time to walk the night (1.4.9-10).  The presence of the Ghost in the play, and its effect on Hamlet, is crucial. It is the Ghost who asks Hamlet to take revenge on his uncle Claudius for his father’s murder. Hamlet’s acceptance of the identity of the Ghost as his father and the task he is given by the Ghost can only result in his death. The Ghost demands that Hamlet become a mirror of himself, in effect a ghostly double. As Stanley Cavell notes, the “bequest of a beloved father deprives the son of his identity” (188). In Hamlet’s acceptance of the Ghost’s request, “the father asks the son to take the father’s place” and the demand made by the Ghost turns his son into a ghost (188). The play at its core hinges on filial obedience and subservience. The tragedy that befalls all the sons in the play is as a result of assuming the identities created for them by their fathers.  

               Likewise, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a father’s inexplicable jealousy toward his wife turns his only son into a ghost. In the first scene, Hermione’s swollen, heavily pregnant body on the stage acts as a visible affront to Leontes’s masculinity – underlining the impossibility of his making a similarly embodied claim to his paternity. Leontes’s crisis of belief in his own status as father structures the tragic events of the play, leading to his accusations of adultery against his wife and his best friend, and also directly to the death of his young son. The age of Mamillius is vital to understanding his death. The boy is still “unbreeched” (1.2.153-55) and thus can be no more than six or seven years of age. As Susan Snyder observes, in the aristocratic families of early modern England “the breeching of boys was a marked event, a formal transition to the next stage of childhood, often coinciding with a shift from the nursery and women’s care to male tutors and attendants.” When a boy “took on male attire, it was the outward and visible sign that he was leaving behind the special cherishing accorded to early childhood” and setting out on the gendered course expected of him by society” (2). If Mamillius is “unbreeched,” it means that he still wears a coat, the skirts worn by young boy children before they put on the breeches that completed their gendering as male. He is thus too young to leave his mother’s care. The action of the play suggests that the cause of Mamillius’s death is his sudden rupture from the nursery. Leontes in his jealousy wishes to possess the boy absolutely and deny any further influence from Hermione’s embodied kinship with Mamillius. His son has, Leontes declares “some signs of me, yet you/Have too much blood in him” (2.1.57-8). At his father’s angry command, Mamillius is abruptly severed from the maternal domain, where he is still being nurtured by Hermione and her ladies in waiting. His father’s claim on the boy, his demand that his son leave the care of his mother and his nursery before he is ready to do so, is motivated by Leontes’s unshakeable belief that Hermione’s recent pregnancy is a result of her adultery with his best friend Polixenes: an idea for which there is no proof but his own conviction. Leontes’s actions are presented crimes against the natural order, demonstrated vividly in the judgement of the Oracle at Delphi, which Leontes at first repudiates. The unfolding of the plot entails and requires a shift in genre, from the tragic mode of the opening acts into a comedic pastoral mode halfway through the play, as the only possible way for Leontes to atone for his actions and reconcile with his wife. But Mamillius is never magically restored to life as Hermione is by the end of the play. His death remains a poignant note in the face of the magical restorations and reunions made possible by Shakespeare’s melding of genres in his family romance. Neither magic nor stagecraft can resurrect the small boy who dies when removed from the bosom of his mother.  Like Hamlet, Mamillius is sacrificed on the altar of his father’s demands, forced into judgement of his mother, and into becoming the son of the Father alone.  

               In Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, the dream of the burning child is the text of a dream. It is not the dream itself but the dream as it is retold first by his patient to Freud and then by Freud to his reader. Dixie’s evocation of this dream text in her work, her intersection and combination of the dream of the burning child with the stories of Isaac and Hamlet, operates on the viewer like a dream which is redreamt, like a story that keeps getting told, from generation to generation. As such, the six prints work together to speak of the political unconscious out of which such stories come and the power of such stories to constitute subjects, subjectivities, nations, and worlds. Abraham’s obedience begets a nation, a multitude of nations. Dixie’s exhibition examines, to use David Miller’s words, “what it means to exist in a culture founded on Abraham and refounded by Jesus on the sacrifice of the son’s body to the father’s word” (218).

One of the key effects of The Binding is Dixie’s creation of a dream-like space where the meaning of masculinity, and the father-son bond, proliferates through the viewer’s simultaneous experience of resemblance and disparity. At the foot of each of her six prints of a sleeping child is a bed or altar on which lies his wounded reflection: a three-dimensional shadow created entirely from plastic toy soldiers. Seen from a distance these installations estrange the viewer. They seem, at first impression, almost animal – the rows of tightly regimented soldiers that make up the shapes of the sleeping boys can give the effect of reptilian scales. The spikes of the toy soldiers’ bayonets extending from the shadows provide some of the boys’ feet with inhuman claws. These ghostly doubles, each of which is missing a leg, evoke the carnage and chaos of the modern battle field and, in their unresolvable near-symmetry to the images in the prints on the wall above, echo, only to call into question, the continued safety of the sleeping boy. Each reiteration suggests the inevitability of gender roles, in suggesting that the boy’s nursery is always already the killing field, wartime hospital ward, or sacrificial altar.

War is the spectacle of the sacrificial son writ large. The language of sacrifice pervades descriptions of modern conflict just as it marked the epics recording the battles of empires past. Dixie’s installation makes vividly present both the energies that motivate patriarchal paternity and its cost: the continued loss and death of young men. The shapes of the boys made of toy soldiers are the logical consequences of such a sacrificial paradigm.

In order to reach the prints and sculptures, the viewer needs to move through a series of soft, embroidered lace veils and on each of these are representations of the boy child at play in his role as man. The veils are printed with photographic images depicting Dixie’s six-year son playing soldier, dressed up in a helmet and carrying the tools of warfare: a variety of guns, harnesses, and binoculars. Here Dixie makes reference to the tradition in both literature and portrait painting of the puer senex or elderly boy: a tradition in which the male child simulates manhood and thus earns the award of adult affection and praise. But, in her concern with a stage in a boy’s life in which he begins to shift away from his infant connection with the body of his mother and into the realm of the father, Dixie interrogates the implicit submission to ready-made roles that this form of play involves.          

            The Binding can be understood as a work of mourning as it records Dixie’s response as the mother of a son in a patriarchal culture and sets her personal experience alongside paradigmatic texts that speak to the role of the father-son bond in Western culture and its impact on our ways of structuring parental roles, gender, and kinship. Dixie’s work may be read as a mother bearing witness to a sacrificial culture in which she is implicated but also deliberately excluded, as her embodied maternity gives way to the law of the Father: the patriarchal ties that bind.  But The Binding, in making us inhabit the view of the father, while witnessing the experience of the son destined for sacrifice, asks the viewer (whatever our own gendered identity) to reckon with our own complicity. What is revealed is how we too have been bound, socialized into a view of the male child. Yet we may also inhabit the view of the son, or even his mother, putting into motion a provocative discordance of identification.

 

 

References

David Bunn, “A Sidelong Glance: Christine Dixie’s Thresholds.” Catalogue Essay for Corporeal Prospects by Christine Dixie, 2007.

 

Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2010.

 

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

David Lee Miller, Dreams of the Burning Child: Sacrificial Sons and the Father’s Witness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

 

William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Arden, 1982.

 

------,  The Winter’s Tale. Ed. John Pitcher. London: Arden, 2010.

 

Susan Snyder, “Mamillius and Gender Polarization in The Winter's Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 50.1 (Spring 1999), pp. 1-8.