Michael Gerard Plastow – The Ages of the Child

THE LETTER 61 Spring 2016, pages 35-43

Oedipus was the only one to successfully answer the question posed by the
Theban Sphinx. His answer saved his life, but it was also a turning away from
the enigma of sexuality by reducing the riddle to a developmental schema.
From Oedipus’ response, it is evident that the developmental conception is
age-old, not a recent scientific invention. But the child does not permit of any
clear definition established by ages and stages. Our modern notion of childhood
has come about through the repression of sex and death in the child. I
propose that the child first exists in-fancy, in the fancy or fantasm of each
parent, leaving an indelible mark upon the soul of each child.

Keywords: infancy, child, development, infanticide, mother love, fantasy,
Our modern notion of the child emerged in the decline of the Middle Ages
and the privileged place that the child occupies in the family is quite recent.
It is my thesis that the modern ‘sentiment of childhood’ described by the historian
Philippe Ariès has come about through the repression of both infantile
sexuality and mortality: sex and death being the two great enigmas according
to Freud. By examining this ‘silent history’ of the child, we might endeavour
to locate the lost discourses of childhood.
In Apollodorus’ account, the riddle of the Theban Sphinx was the following:
‘What is it that has one name that is four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?’
No Theban had been able to find the answer and, in despair, the regent
Creon offered both the throne and his sister Jocasta to anyone who could do
so. Oedipus was the only one to successfully answer the question. His reply
was, ‘Man is the answer: for as an infant he goes upon four feet; in his prime
upon two; and in old age he takes a stick as a third foot.’ …


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