Inheritance as a curse

The psychology of inheritance and its cultural representations in Freud, Wagner, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky.

| 14 min read

During times of political uncertainty it is often to the poets and philosophers that we turn in order to attempt to bring some order to the chaos. For those of us who have a habit of viewing the past in broad strokes, and like to construct patterns across historical eras, there is a certain affinity between the period in which the great Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud lived and that of our own. Fifty years after the ‘Year of Revolutions’ (1848) and the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Freud was working on the first great book of psychoanalysis, the work which he regarded as his magnus opus, The Interpretation of Dreams. In creating the new science of psychoanalysis, Freud took his place alongside Marx and Nietzsche in a group which would dominate the intellectual climate of the early Twentieth Century, and would come to be known as the ‘philosophers of suspicion’. Although Freud identified more with Copernicus and Darwin, the work of all of these thinkers can be seen to produce a similar outcome; the dismantling of various authorities. Under the theories of these thinkers, the authority of state, religion, morality, mankind’s place in the universe and the natural world, the family and even the individual psyche, all came into question.

Part of Freud’s genius lay in the manner in which he was able to transfer this spirit of questioning from the socio-political realm into the familial realm, and even the intra-psychical realm; after Freud our internal worlds, our desires, hopes and fears would be shown to be moulded under the rubric of our early childhood experiences within the family network. If Marx gave us the ability to think in terms of ideologies, then Freud opened up our understanding of unconscious desire and ambivalence. Childhood, like society, was no longer straight-forward and innocent, but was instigated and maintained through a succession of half-truths, repressions and tacitly enforced power relations. Fifty years after the May ’68 riots in France, the country is now in the middle of the ‘yellow vest’ movement. This is just the latest example of the many recent challenges to neo-liberal ideologies which have appeared in the last few years, including Brexit, Trumpism and the rise of reactionary right-wing movements in Europe. Like Freud we live in times of social and political upheaval. The legitimacy of authorities are again under question, and as Freud was able to bring the question of authority ‘closer to home’, it is in this context he can be approached in order to elucidate the subject at hand, that of inheritance.

It is a curious fact that Freud described himself as immune to the pleasures of music. Despite this fact, it has long been our contention at the Freud Museum that one cultural figure with whom Freud shared an affinity was the composer Richard Wagner, indeed Wagner’s creative output straddled the political ideas of Marx (through his immersion in the writings of the German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach), the aesthetic theories of the early Nietzsche, and pointed the way towards Freud’s notions of the Oedipus Complex and the unconscious.

Towards the end of Brunnhilde’s Immolation scene, which concludes the opera Götterdämmerung the final instalment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the heroine sings the following,

‘Now my inheritance I’ve taken for myself, accursed ring, terrible ring!’

This ‘accursed terrible ring’, Brunnhilde’s inheritance which gives its owner the power to rule the world, she will return to its original natural source, sacrificing herself in order to cleanse the world of its lust for power. Wagner’s revolutionary principles led him to plan a great musical drama about the power of sacrificial love, and the need for the destruction of private property has often been referred to as the ‘meaning’ of the work. However, Wagner took a 10 year break in the composition of the work during which time he immersed himself in the writings of the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. This led him to modify his early Feuerbachean inspired notion of history into more tragic attitude. Whilst these two narratives run through the work, it became clear that the ‘curse of inheritance’ could not be overturned through the purifying act of self-sacrifice, or indeed the establishment of a new world-order. The revolution and subsequent abolition of private property could not save humanity from the curse; the problem became more metaphysical than socio-political, and humanity was somehow indelibly linked to the curse of inheritance.

What Wagner came to realise through his reading of Schopenhauer, Freud was to conceptualise in the new science of psychoanalysis, in his own words, transforming ‘metaphysics into metapsychology’. Through his explorations of the unconscious aspect of our minds, that we are driven by desires that we are not consciously aware of, he was able to investigate the conflicted, ambivalent attitudes that permeate human behaviour. By postulating the Oedipus Complex he discovered a tool through which to think about this ambivalence, arguing that the motive forces of our emotional world are established in our early relationships with our parents and siblings, and are often characterised by equal and opposite emotions. Underneath our conscious affection of our parents, there can often lay an equally strong sense of hatred, and as the unconscious has a dynamic quality, this sense of hatred can invade and appropriate our actions in whatever outlets it may find. This set of arguments, arrived at through clinical observation, gave Freud a key to understanding why our ‘inheritance’, that which is handed down to us by our parents, can be regarded as cursed.

If then, our emotional attitudes to our parents are fundamentally ambivalent, so will be our attitudes to the gifts that they hand down to us; power to impotence; joy to sadness; purity to guilt. In fact, Freud argued that the notion of guilt in relation to our parents was a conditioning factor for human society, and he sought to examine its mechanisms. If we harbour unconscious hatred towards our fathers due to the fact that they have barred our way to our mothers’ affections in childhood, we will, according to Freud, be ridden with feelings of guilt at their death, an event that we have unconsciously wished for. Therefore what we will inherit as a result will also be tainted by association. Whilst most of us are able to manage these emotions and find ‘compromises’ to assuage them (rituals around mourning are one cultural example of these), these feelings of ambivalence can be so intense that they result in a neurosis; a kind of blockage of conflicting instincts which can be manifested in hysterical, obsessional and phobic symptoms.

Although Freud could not be described as a behaviourist, as he believed that the key to unravelling a symptom could only be found within the individual patient themselves, he did write about certain ‘types’ of patients, and one category of these, ‘Those Wrecked by Success’ (in Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work (1916) is particularly germane to the subject of inheritance. Freud writes of an academic teacher who had long held the wish to ‘succeed his master’ in his teaching practice. When the master retired, leaving the path open to the teacher to ‘inherit’ his position, he ‘began to hesitate, depreciated his merits, declared himself unworthy to fill the position designed for him, and fell into a melancholia which unfitted him for all activity for some years’. That the fulfilment of a wish immediately brought on an illness and ‘put an end to all enjoyment of the wish’, is a result of the fact that, for Freud, the ego can accommodate certain wishes ‘if they remain in phantasy’ but will ‘defend itself hotly against them’ when they begin to approach reality. It is how Freud develops this argument which is really illuminating, as he uses Shakespeare’s Macbeth as an attempt to answer the question as to the genesis of these forbidden wishes. Freud argues that the crucial passage in Shakespeare’s great tragedy revolves around Macduff’s ‘shattering cry’ in Act IV when he exclaims,

‘He has no children!’

Freud suggests that the whole play is centred on the father-child relation. Macbeth’s killing the ‘kindly father figure’ Duncan and accession to the throne in his place is described as the playing out of a childish fantasy of murdering the father, and as punishment for this crime he is unable to produce heirs, or ‘get kings’ as the witches exclaim. The line stops at Macbeth, his inheritance loses its value because it cannot be ‘handed down’ and a new line of kings can only be established under one who was ‘not of woman born’, Macduff, who was ‘ripped from his mother’s womb’. Freud argues that the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are ‘like two disunited parts of a single psychical individual’; that they represent the whole range of possible reactions that can take place in a single individual as a result of committing such a crime. Thus Lady Macbeth, having been the driving force behind the murder originally, afterward ‘falls ill of a mental disorder’; she is ‘all remorse’, he is ‘all defiance’. The composite Macbeth/Lady Macbeth character displays the dangers of acceding to the role of king, the symbolic father whose murder had been fantasised over in the unconscious (Lady Macbeth) and then had been brought into being in reality (by Macbeth). If our lives are in some way conditioned by the guilt emanating from the unconscious fantasy of killing the father, in the event of his death, the inheritance which we receive as a result can act in a symbolic manner, reactivating these unconscious desires, and then unleashing a crippling force of guilt in order to defend against these desires.

The notion of ‘inheritance as a curse’ is also in evidence in Freud’s masterly depiction of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a paper entitled ‘Dostoyevsky and Parricide’ (1928). In this paper, rather than analysing Dostoyevsky’s novels in detail, he ventures into the realm of psycho-biography, and suggests that the notion of parricide is the central concern not only in Dostoyevsky’s master piece, The Brothers Karamazov but also in the novelist’s own life. In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene in which a father is murdered by one of his sons. In fact, Freud argues that all of the sons can been see as guilty of desiring their father’s murder, except the Christ-like Alyosha, a redemptive symbol who has the potential to liberate his brothers from guilt. Dostoyevsky’s own father was murdered when he was eighteen, and Freud suggests that the increased severity and development of the novelist’s epilepsy can be related to the extreme sense of guilt that overcame him at the murder of his father, an event that he had secretly desired in his youth. Having established the existence of a ‘sense of guilt’ which Dostoyevsky carried around with him, Freud goes on to argue that his gambling addiction proves that, ‘as often happens with neurotics, Dostoyevsky’s sense of guilt had taken a tangible shape as a burden of debt’. According to his posthumous papers and his wife’s diary, the great Russian novelist was not interested in winning sums of money to pay off his creditors, but was more fascinated by the rush and thrill of losing money; ‘he never stopped until he had lost everything’. In his novel The Gambler, he brilliantly conveys the excitement of squandering his very last kopeck, with a psychological acuteness that Freud himself would’ve been proud of. Indeed, according to his wife’s diaries, she soon realised that, perversely, it was of a benefit to her husband to lose everything he had, as only after losing everything was he able to write; money was so related to his ‘burden of guilt’ that it left him ‘creatively dead’.


According to Freud, neurotics display exaggerated tendencies that we all posses in different constellations and to differing degrees, and repressed desires that lay dormant in the unconscious can be reactivated by traumatic events and produce distressing and unpredictable actions. The act of inheriting after the death of a parent is a financial benefit that comes from a traumatic event which has the potential to irreversibly colour and transform its outcome. If we have seen the psychological complexities at work in the act of inheritance, George Eliot’s Middlemarch can offer us a different perspective on the nature of inheritance. Indeed, in the narrative of this text it is the act of not receiving a longed-for and expected inheritance which forces the dissolute and immature Fred Vichy to mend his ways and take responsibility for his actions. One thing seems clear in all this, there’s nothing straight-forward about inheritance.

Tom works at the Freud Museum, the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and his daughter Anna Freud, a pioneering child psychoanalyst. The Museum promotes the relevance of psychoanalysis in the arts, in culture, in ideas and in contemporary life, and works in partnership with organisations connected to mental health and wellbeing. Tom organises conferences on Psychoanalysis and Culture and runs the Freud Museum reading group. He has published articles and reviews, particularly on Freud and Richard Wagner in The Wagner Journal, and his research explores the relationship between Psychoanalysis, Literature and Opera, and the philosophical implications of Freud’s theories for contemporary life.

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Inheritance as a curse

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