Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Vanda Zajko, Ellen O'Gorman (ed.), Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 374. ISBN 9780199656677. $150.00.

Reviewed by Steven Z. Levine, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this engaging volume on Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis, Vanda Zajko and Ellen O'Gorman present eighteen essays from a 2009 conference at the University of Bristol, where they are Senior Lecturers in Classics. Produced for the Classical Presences series at Oxford University Press, these writings preserve lively traces of the oral performance by an international roster of scholars committed to—and critical of—the interpretation of Greek and Roman mythology through the various theoretical frameworks of psychoanalysis.

As Zajko and O'Gorman explain in their introduction, just as nineteenth-century classical humanism provided Sigmund Freud an allegorical template of human psychology in the myths of Oedipus and Narcissus, so too has psychoanalysis provided classicists with powerful tools to anatomize the protagonists of classical mythology in the past 100 years. The editors maintain that the minute attention to the symbolic order of language by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan most closely resembles the classicist's methodology of close linguistic scrutiny, but that this Lacanian approach to classical studies is now being replaced by a "new humanism", in which postcolonial perspectives resist the interpretation of ancient characters and cultures according to the problematic protocols of modern psychoanalysis. In the end the editors resist this political reaction, and insist on retaining the fundamental psychoanalytic insight that any interpretation of the narratives of the past is necessarily implicated in our own "investments and projections" (p. 17). The technical names for these unconscious crossings of anxiety and desire between analysts and analysands, critics and their texts, are transference and counter-transference, and it is this principle of self-reflection that justifies the volume's subtitle—ancient and modern stories of the self—precisely because it is the contested juxtaposition of ancient myth and modern self that is here at stake. What we all do, therapists, patients, and scholars alike, is to strive to tell new stories against the inertial resistance of the old. That work, they maintain, remains interminable.

Part One, Contexts for Freud, opens with five attempts to read Freud's readings of antiquity and mythology in alliance with the anthropology, archaeology, philology, and politics of his era. Bruce M. King elaborates on Freud's reference in his 1937 essay "Analysis Terminable or Interminable" to the dualism of the philosopher-poet Empedocles, whose cosmic forces of Love and Strife foreshadow the psychoanalyst's similar opposition between the psychological drives of Eros and aggression. In his 1933 letter, "Why War?," to Albert Einstein, Freud acknowledges that the psychoanalytic theory of the drives is a kind of mythology but wonders whether Einstein's theory of universal physical forces is not a kind of mythology too. In Empedocles' Strife, Freud finds support for the tragic view that the harmony between self and other to which Love aspires endlessly comes undone by the persistence of human aggression.

In contrast, Daniel Orrells turns from Philia to the Phallus, noting Freud's amassing of ancient phallic amulets as an archaeological confirmation of his controversial insistence on the primacy in the unconscious of the male fear of castration and the female envy of the penis. Here the science of archaeology rather than ancient cosmology provides a putative genealogy for Freud's patients' fantasies of the detachability of the male sexual member. Freud sees their fantasy of the phallic mother foreshadowed in the androgynous mother goddesses of Egypt and Greece, much to the consternation of colleagues like Ernest Jones who looked instead to the Judaeo-Christian Bible for narratives of the immutability of the female and male sexes.

It was in fact the Roman Catholic Church that was Freud's "true enemy" (p. 67), as he wrote in a letter in 1937, not long before he was forced to seek asylum from Nazi-controlled Vienna in London, where his collection of antiquities is today arrayed in his study at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. Richard H. Armstrong considers the untimeliness of Freud's fight not only with the Christian church but also with his fellow Jews, whose law-giver, Moses, is re-interpreted by the dying analyst as an Egyptian monotheist who was murdered by the Jews he had converted to his cause. The Jews atoned for this murder by embracing the deity they had formerly spurned, thus confirming for Freud the anthropological myth of the primal horde of brothers who transcend the murder of their clan father by negotiating a tenuous social solidarity. Catching himself in an attempted verbal murder of Father Freud, Armstrong ends by marveling that his own effort "to subvert, expose and perhaps even ridicule" (p. 74) the scientific pretension of the myth of the primal horde reaffirms the authority of Freud as an unsurpassable figure of myth himself.

David Engels considers the different ways in which psychoanalysts appropriate the myth of Narcissus. Whereas Freud sees narcissism as a transitional stage between auto-erotism and object-love, Jung rejects Freud's stress on sexuality as the origin of creativity and interprets the myth as "a paradigm of each human in search of self-completion" (p. 95). Alone among the early analysts, Otto Rank distinguishes between the version of the myth in Ovid, where Narcissus rejects the advances of the nymph Echo, and lesser-known versions where the rejected lover is male (Conon) or where the reflected image evokes his beloved twin sister who died (Pausanias). Engels concludes that analysts self-reflexively discover themselves as they bend over the mirrors of their patients' words.

Vered Lev Kenaan anchors the play between surface and depth not in the myth of Narcissus but in that of Pandora, described by Hesiod as bearing visible traits of female beauty and an invisible interior of enigmatic femininity. Freud refers only indirectly to this myth in the pseudonym of his famous patient Dora, so Lev Kenaan turns instead to an article, "Pandora's Box," by one of the first classicists to acknowledge the influence of psychoanalysis, the British scholar Jane Harrison. In an error of translation that had associated Pandora, since the 16th century, not with Hesiod's capacious pithos, or funerary urn, but rather with a diminutive pyxis, or jewelry casket, Harrison sees the repression of autochthonous mother goddesses in favor of the girlish femininity of the domestic law of marriage. In the dynamic superimposition of patent and latent meanings, the figure of Pandora thus "introduces the idea of the unconscious into the history of humanity" (p. 113).

The essays of Part Two, on Freud and Vergil, exhibit the ways in which the unruliness of the unconscious is domesticated and dramatized by the scholarly text. Gregory A. Staley quotes the famous epigraph of the Interpretation of Dreams, "If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions" (Aeneid 7.312), noting that Freud later glosses the passage as pointing to the unconscious working of repressed impulses in conscious life. This exhortation by Juno, the enemy of the fleeing Trojan heroes who will become the legendary founders of Rome, provides a point of identification for Freud's opposition to the Roman church, although Staley does not bring himself to notice the euphony of Juno/Jew-No, appropriated by Freud as an anti-antisemitic badge of honor.

This is the kind of attention to the aural play of the signifier that Jeff Rodman demonstrates in his essay on this same text. An untranslated piece of Latin in a German book of dreams, Juno's phrase has the indigestibility of an hysterical symptom lodged in Freud's throat. Juno does not get her wish for the destruction of Aeneas and all his clan, but consoles herself with Jupiter's agreement to suppress the Trojan name in the issue of the marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, father of the Latins. It is the symptomatic persistence of those Latin sounds that permits Freud to enjoy his vain defiance of the paternalistic authority of his era just as Juno had done.

At the fulcrum of this volume, teetering on the vanishing plane between past and present, is the essay on death by Ika Willis. Meditating on the swoon of Augustus' daughter Octavia when hearing Vergil's lament for the death of her son Marcellus, Willis finds herself swooning as the passage is radically transformed by the death of her own father. "I know, now, what is happening in Octavia's body" (p. 158), she confesses, as the after-effects of these deaths transubstantiate past into present in the face of an unknown future.

Having suffered the death of my mother while reading this volume, I was intimately pierced by the essay by Victoria Wohl that opens Part Three, Beyond the Canon. Reading Aristophanes' Wasps alongside Isaeus' speeches on Athenian inheritance law, Wohl finds their unlikely conjuncture in the Lacanian figure of the paternal superego whose admonitions of obedience are transgressed in the comic and tragic excesses of extramarital, septuagenarian sex. In both instances the desire of the sons for their lawful inheritance is shown to be as immoderate as the paternal lust that contravenes that law.

Parental obedience is also Kurt Lampe's theme. Reading Musonius Rufus by way of Lacan, Lampe argues that the Stoic's claim that the filial obedience that is owed to one's father may be suspended by the superior obedience that is owed to Zeus eventuates in the kind of "willful recalcitrance" (p. 196) that is expressly condemned by Stoic principle.

The duplicity of the Lacanian view of law that foments the very conduct that it forbids is also at stake in Erik Gunderson's account of the gap between the exemplary tales of Roman heroes by Valerius Maximus and the hysterical emptying out of their exemplarity by the sheer repetitiveness of his rhetorical style.

Finally, Paul Allen Miller concludes this section with a consideration of satire in Juvenal and Persius through the category of the abject in the post-Lacanian feminist Julia Kristeva. The scatological enjoyment of satire reinforces what Augustine knew, that we are born between faeces and urine, abject exudates that must be repressed for polite society to establish itself as a fictive symbolic ideal.

Part Four, Myth as Narrative and Icon, takes us away from these Lacanian accents on the body, apart from Oliver Harris's commentary on Lacan's seminar on the death of Antigone, imprisoned for insisting on her brother's rite of burial in defiance of the law of the Theban state. The incestuous issue of Oedipus and Jocasta, Antigone renounces the desire to live in her relentless drive toward a Narcissus-like death of self-abnegation.

Another mythic sufferer, Prometheus, finds his pains spiritually sublimated as the pangs of creativity in the essay by the British artist and critic Meg Harris Williams, daughter of Martha Harris and step-daughter of Donald Meltzer, two of Melanie Klein's faithful Anglo-American followers. Another post-Kleinian, Wilfrid Bion, provides the theoretical optic through which Prometheus is equated with psychoanalyst and patient who together strive to convert unbearable corporeal symptoms into bearable symbols in the mind. The therapist and classicist Marcia Dobson, together with her husband John Riker, turn to Heinz Kohut's self-psychology which they liken to the myth of Eros in Plato's Symposium, where the divided halves of our mythical ancestors, punished for insulting the gods, seek reunification with each other just as patients today seek reintegration of the split-off aspects of their originally unified selves.

Very different is the essay by Jens De Vleminck, who turns to the little-known work of the Hungarian psychiatrist LipĆ³t Szondi, who rejected Freud's stress on the Oedipal linkage between sexuality and aggression in favor of locating a primordial aggressive instinct in the figure of the Bible's first fratricide, Cain.

The rejection of Freud culminates in Part Five, Reflexivity and Meta-Narrative, in which Mark Payne supplants the Oedipal scenario of rival fathers and sons of literary history with Aristotle's maternal analogy, appropriated by Hannah Arendt, for an artist's love for her or his works. Callimachus and Flaubert are cited as authors who self-reflexively enter into the lives of their characters, but it is just such parental intrusiveness that Page duBois rejects in the ultimate chapter of the book. Originally performed as a keynote address in Bristol, duBois here recants much of her path- breaking work of 25 years ago by re-branding the paternal knowing of the psychoanalyst as an illegitimate form of paternalism in the service of patriarchal imperialism. Although she is now "reluctant to colonize" (p. 316) ancient characters and cultures, like her hosts Zajko and O'Gorman she remains committed to "the self-conscious, self-critical, self-reflexive mode of knowing recorded in Freud's accounts" (p. 319). I do too.

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