The Laius Complex. Abraham, Laius, Moses — Father, Trauma, and Carrying

A roundtable on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the 20th anniversary of his death.

The Laius Complex. Abraham, Laius, Moses — Father, Trauma, and Carrying

On the 20th anniversary of the death of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, LARB’s philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever and Brad Evans invited several Deleuze scholars to reflect on the continued importance of Deleuze’s life and work today.


LET’S THINK ABOUT Abraham first.

Sacrifice without sacrifice, Jacques Derrida observes in his book The Gift of Death, is the history of men only. The history of male-fathers and male-sons. Each time a son is lost and then saved by the father, intended for sacrifice then saved by the father, pushed to fall but then caught up by the father alone — isn’t this an Abrahamic route? The route of Abraham and his son Isaac?

Men carry an endless debt toward the sacrifice without sacrifice of the son who is ultimately saved — by the father alone.

If this is a “men only” affair, it is a perverse affair to be sure — a père-version (father-version), to use Jacques Lacan’s favorite expression.

Indeed, it is a secret that the son cannot discover.

But whose secret is it?

We are dealing here with a machine that is bigger than what Oedipus can contain. In their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari identify an exaggerated Oedipus in action. But if we consider the Oedipus tragedy after looking at Abraham first, my attention is drawn to Laius — Oedipus’s father. The son can discover the secret of Oedipus: after all, it is the subject-as-son who invented Oedipus. What the son cannot discover is the secret of Abraham. The son can never discover the secret of Laius. That material is kept out of the son’s reach. Isaac doesn’t guess the intentions of his father Abraham, and if he does, he assumes that his father is innocent (as he claims). Abraham’s sacrifice without sacrifice is a kind of perfect crime, as Jean-François Lyotard has suggested in his reading of Kafka: a crime that does not kill its witness but nevertheless succeeds in obtaining the witness’s silence. The son of Laius was not meant to survive. If he survives — as he did — how will he be able to witness, to testify to the criminal intentions of his father? He will be considered insane. Ordinary communication will not be enough for such a situation. New idioms will need to be invented.

How can a subject resist injustice when the father not only rules the system of justice but also appropriates the right to disobey it and manages to silence the witness to this rule and disobedience? Without killing the witness?

Behind the Kafkaesque power mechanism of the law, which Deleuze and Guattari understand as a magnification and exaggeration of the Oedipus complex, a more powerful mechanism functions in the psychic and social field, one that originates — I propose — from a position of paternality in what I call the Laius Complex. Exaggerated Oedipus is not enough. The Laius Complex is beyond its scope; it introduces different parameters. It is as dyadic as the son-mother symbiosis to which the Oedipus principle is supposed to put a stop. Secret father-son links are established under this père-version, where the desire of the mother is foreclosed. 

The Kafkaesque son is oppressed by the pretense of innocence of the destructive father. Franz Kafka’s father saw in his infant a true monster, and thus became his tyrant. Kafka writes to his father, whose game he will always lose: he replied to the paternal perfect crime with an Oedipus masquerade. But what Kafka was really caught up in was the Laius delirium of his father: it prevented Kafka from discovering his father’s secret. It made it impossible for him to truly live.

So: let’s talk about Laius.

Laius abducted and raped Chrysippus, the son of a king who was his host. In trying to escape Laius, Chrysippus fell or jumped from the top of a hill and was killed. When Laius’s son Oedipus was born, Laius ordered him killed on Mount Cithaeron.

The impulse of Laius is therefore double. First, there is the envious erotic-aggressive: to seduce his friend’s son and then rape him, to own his youth’s treasures, his beauty, perhaps his creativity. When Chrysippus jumps to his death, Laius doesn’t share the pain of Chrysippus’s father. Then later on, there is the second impulse: to kill his own son. His host’s son was killed; Laius’s natural son was saved by a shepherd.

The shepherd is the one who, like the mother preceding our birth, carries. The carrier feels-knows in the Real some secret that mothers even before birthing already know, and that threatens Laius with destruction. This is the shock that maternality brings to the field, and that with its sublimation  and the sublimation of the womb (matrixial model) opens up for me the possibility to discern a Laius Complex in psychoanalysis, culture, and society, to articulate it — and also to criticize it.

A Laius delirium might fatally hit father-son relations. In the case of Abraham, we are dealing with a secret sacrifice without sacrifice — he lures his son out to die but then saves him before he falls. Laius’s case is different: a secret sacrifice per se, a perfect crime.

Can the awareness of what I call the matrixial-maternal sphere — the feminine difference of carriance, revealed in the Oedipus story associated with the shepherd — moderate a Laius delirium? In a subject-space of ethical carriance, the sovereign economy of “it’s either you or me” will fail. The matrixial symbolic calls upon the father-son dyad to mark a space that will fail the dyad’s economy of either/or. It is not simply a question, in other words, of revealing the dyadic economy of the Laius complex. We should also try to transform it. Its alternative, yet twin triadic pact — the Abrahamic secret, which, unlike that of Laius, includes God — can be slightly cracked in this way as well. No woman-mother is represented in the story of Abraham and Isaac. What transformations might be accomplished if the archaic maternality that is foreclosed here enters into the structure of the subject?

The symbolic means of the matrixial-maternal alliance function to interfere within the delirious dyad of the Laius complex and open a space between father and son in delirious dyad, and to modify the delirious moment in the Abrahamic triad. The ethics of carriance-in-compassion, and the wit(h)nessing that it brings, supplies a resistance to Laius, inviting us to rethink the implications of the subject as carrier. I am therefore I carry.

Finally, then, let’s talk about Moses.

Moses is Father precisely because he carries like the mother carries infants. It is, indeed, from this position that Moses expresses his trauma:

And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth [gave them birth, B.E.], that Thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father [nursing-mother, B.E.] carrieth the sucking child [in square brackets: my translation from the Hebrew] (Numbers 11: 11-12)

Isaiah expresses his traumatic moment from a similar position:

Even to old age I am the same, and even to hoar hairs will I carry you; I have made, and I will bear; yea, I will carry, and will deliver.  (Isaiah 46: 4)

The “remedy” to paternal sacrificial delirium in a psychoticized dyad will not come from irony and amusement, which turn the son’s relation to life and death into a game in which a Laius-father will always win. 

In a matrixial co-emergence the becoming-mother encounters and witnesses the vulnerability of a subject whose being-toward-birth-with-in-another must be accounted for too whenever we are considering a subject, once the subject has already been born, when the other is a subject for the I, a vulnerable other in primordial trust.


Bracha L. Ettinger is a prominent Israeli-French visual artist, philosopher, psychoanalyst, and feminist thinker.

This text is based on a paper titled "The Laius Complex and Shocks of Maternality: With Franz Kafka and Sylvia Plath" that was delivered at the international conference "Immunity and Modernity" at the University of Leuven, Belgium, May 27th-29th, 2015.

LARB Contributor

Bracha L. Ettinger is a prominent Israeli-French visual artist, philosopher, psychoanalyst, and feminist thinker. She has exhibited solo shows in leading international museums including the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg (2013).


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