Jung within Freud

In July I made my first visit to the Freud Museum in London. The occasion was a conference entitled ‘Ecstatic Ancient / Archaic Thought and Analytical Psychology: An Inquiry’, and behind the title lay the intention to discover the ways in which archaic and ancient cultures understood what we today think of as the unconscious. Furthermore, the conference sought to recover the place of Carl Jung in such discussions, who is felt to be under-represented, compared to Freud, Lacan, and so on.

If there was any irony in the fact that we convened in Freud’s house to concentrate on the legacy of his great apostate, it did not reveal itself in sub-disciplinary antagonism. Any rancour was reserved to the final moments of the conference, and concerned a more modern academic schism.

Inevitably, many of the papers (including my own) concerned aspects of Greek thought. Euripides’ Dionysian tragedy, the Bacchae fitted the theme particularly well. Scott Farrington’s reading of the Bacchae considered dramatic performance as ritual: in effect, there is no spectator. To observe a ritual is to participate in it, and all present are connected in an invisible web. Mark Saban’s paper returned to Dionysus in the second day of the conference. He addressed the root of ‘ecstatic’ in the Greek ek-stasis, standing outside one’s self, and returned to the idea of the theatre audience standing outside the self and extending sympathetically to the other. A gnomic thought I jotted down has become one of those notes that made perfect sense at the time, but has since taken on an air of enigmatic mystery, namely that to encounter Dionysus is to see the unconscious seeing ourselves…

Further distinguished papers came from Catriona Miller, whose discussion of the Sumerian underworld probed the changing signification of Abzu/Apzu; Terence Dawson, who highlighted the beautiful affirmation of cyclical history in the opening of the classical Chinese Novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms: ‘Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.’ Alan Cardew performed a characteristically erudite and witty collision of German classicism and late antiquity; Richard Seaford horrified us with an extension of his theory that an abstract system of money was central to the development of philosophy and ideas of the self; and Emmanuela Bakola put forward a winning argument for a staging of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in which the Furies are revealed in shocking, brief flashes prior to their main entrance.

The final presentation of the conference was by Paul Bishop who, among other things, noted that interest in the ekstatic and the archaic is counter to dominant thinking in the humanities. This has indeed been my experience: materialism (or historical materialism and dialectical materialism) is the foundation of a compelling critique of contemporary social relations but it often seems to inculcate a suspicion of other ways of viewing the world. So there is work to be done on advocating the potential for mythical structures of thought to be perceived, not as the inevitable root of totalitarian ideology, but as opening a way for transcending the degraded social relations of (if you will) late capitalism.

This great conference, organised by Leslie Gardner, ended with an open discussion session which erupted into an impassioned argument about the benefits or otherwise of neuroscience (also known as biopsychology or, waggishly, neurobollocks). I have no informed opinion about this, and watched in bemusement as some interlocutors simply refused to acknowledge a divergent view. I ended up with the rough supposition that, from a humanities perspective, neuroscience may be useful historically, in describing processes, it is useless analytically. But I am willing to be corrected.

This took us a long way from where I felt the conference belonged. So I’ll conclude with a comment Richard Seaford made in response to Paul Bishop’s paper. You know the Wisdom of Silenus: it is best not to be born; but the second best is to die quickly. It is the cornerstone of pessimistic philosophy. Prof. Seaford reminded us of the context: Silenus tells it to Midas – the king doomed to turn all he touches into gold. To Midas the words are entirely appropriate. The Triteness of Silenus! Yet surely Silenus is thought to be addressing the tragedy of humanity in general, and not just the destructive avariciousness represented by Midas? That’s one to ponder was we stroll downstairs to Freud’s couch for a nice lie down.

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Myths in Camden

Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century
7 July 2016

To Camden for a one-day colloquium at The Open University. It’s an emotional part of town for me, and the proliferation of chain stores cannot completely erase the traces of ugly t-shirts, leather jackets, Record and Tape Exchange, and Compendium Books. The OU building is another matter: modern, and with a pleasant garden area tucked into a small plot of land. The colloquium was free, as was lunch, so I was well-disposed towards the event from the start.

The topic was Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century, and the organizers had assembled an admirably inclusive collection of practitioners – poets, novelists, playwrights, musicians – and academics examining prose, poetry, theatre, film, and video games. The breadth of styles and genres covered proved the continuing saturation of Western culture by the myths, characters, tales, and structures of the classical world.

I’ll comment here only on two papers which addressed themes from tragedy. Emma Cole reported on a performance of Jan Fabre’s twenty-four-hour theatre work Mount Olympus, which is subtitled, ‘To glorify the cult of tragedy’. Fabre uses the physical pressure of long-duration performance with vigorously embodied choreography and speech to heighten the immersive evocation of the cathartic extremity of ritualized myth in a ‘postdramatic’ spectacle. Dr Cole described the scene in which one of the actors, pushed to the limits of physical endurance was seen retching at the side of the stage. How, then, is the audience to respond? Is it part of the performance? Are we to react aesthetically or morally? At the close, Mount Olympus assuredly produced a cathartic effect, and I was curious to discover whether Dr Cole gained any insights into the contested academic definitions of catharsis as purgation, purification, clarification, and so on, but she suggested there is a split between the popular definition of catharsis as intuited by audiences (and described by Fabre himself) and the academic attempts to categorise it.

Tragedy returned later in the afternoon with David Bullen’s paper on ‘Subversive advents: exploring a Bacchic narrative in popular cinema’. He identified Bacchic structure in films as seemingly different as Chocolat and Avengers. The Dionysiac pattern of ‘repression-desire comedies’ such as Chocolat and Footloose is clear to see, with readily identifiable Bacchic incomers encountering Pentheus-like authority figures (the argument was, of course, more thoroughly and persuasively mapped and developed than this brief thumbnail sketch). The delineation of the inverted structure of action films (Avengers, Skyfall, etc.) was particularly impressive. The villain follows the Dionysian role, but Pentheus’ doom is transferred from the (super-)hero to a semi-heroic companion. Despite the hero’s inevitable victory, the denouement demands the renegotiation of cultural identity following the Bacchic subversion, but – as Bullen demonstrated with a scene from Skyfall – the rupture is softened by a familiar, comforting retro aspect to the new order.

Visit to Acropolis Museum

Acropolis Museum, 18 May 2012

View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós
View of Acropolis and Museum from Lykavitós, May 2012
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC.
Moschophoros (calf-bearer), c. 570 BC. Photo: Acropolis Museum.

The forecourt of the beautiful Acropolis Museum is suspended over the remains of ancient buildings, so it imparts a sense of great historical significance before we even enter the building. Visitors follow a path through a sequence of galleries, beginning with the Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis, which itself gently slopes upwards. At the top of the slope is the staggeringly rich Archaic Gallery. Here are the remains of the archaic Parthenon, and all that was buried after the burning of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 BC. The main room contains many korai and other votive offerings; I particularly liked the Μοσχοφόρος (calf-bearer, c. 570 BC) – a man carrying a content-looking calf to sacrifice: it reminded me of Picasso’s L’Homme au mouton, but a very different style. Picasso’s lamb was sketched, then cast in bronze in 1943 in occupied Paris. The archaic calf is the very image of the assenting sacrifice victim, an implicit blessing of the rite that will see its death. The war-time lamb is an image of struggle, dissent, and anguish, but the construction of the two sculptures reaches across the centuries to each other.

Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris).
Picasso, L’Homme au mouton, 1943 (Picasso Museum, Paris). Photo: March 2008

The museum route then leads to the Parthenon Gallery, but before encountering the frieze, metopes and pediment sculptures, we are encouraged to watch a short film about the Parthenon (it was nice to sit down, too). The texts in the gallery and the commentary in the film do not mince words when discussing Elgin and ‘his crew’. Upon entering the Parthenon Gallery proper, the reason behind the sniping language is clear. The museum is designed so that the angle of the top floor is parallel with the Acropolis itself, and is glass from about three feet from the floor to the very high ceiling. Visitors are thus encouraged to observe the Parthenon through the great windows, and then turn around to see the sculptures. It is an undoubtedly powerful experience. Duplicates of the British Museum’s collection are pointedly flagged up; some remains are also in the Louvre, and one or two other places. When I first heard about the new Acropolis Museum, and how part of the intention was to ‘shame’ the British Museum into returning the Parthenon Sculptures that it keeps, I thought that such an emotional appeal was a whimsical idea. Once, when I voiced this opinion, I was mocked for preserving a stereotypical British John Bull mentality, but I countered that it was purely sentimental to hope for the re-unification of all the surviving pieces. On my last visit to the British Museum, in April 2011, I had been persuaded to support the sculptures’ retention in London. The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are a part of the world’s shared history, and the British Museum – relic of Empire as it is – should not be compelled to whitewash the sins of the past, but should be encouraged to present the nation’s plunder in as unbiased a manner possible in a state-funded institution. The portion in London tells the story not only of the Greek collective genius, but of the accidents, follies and arguments of the intervening two and a half thousand years. This was my reasoning: that to attempt to recreate a fixed point in the past risks wiping the history – however regrettable or dispicable – of the intervening time. The Acropolis Museum completely reversed that attitude: it presents the sculptures so perfectly in its context that it indeed puts the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery to shame. But there are two levels of argument: the rational or political argument is the one that the British Museum deploys, and, in its documents and public statements, it ties complex legal and pedantic knots. What fails to be acknowledged in public often enough is the real threat of the precedent that the return of the Parthenon sculptures would set. If the British Museum returned everything it has acquired by dubious or dishonourable means (aware of the anachronism of applying today’s standards to historical transactions), it would be largely empty. Art should not attempt to join rational arguments, though – it need only appeal to emotions: something that the present Athens museum does amply.

Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell, 2012.
Dionysos: cast on the east pediment of the Parthenon; cast in Acropolis Museum; original in British Museum. Photo and collage: Ben Pestell, 2012.