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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Oedipus at Theatro Technis

Oedipus at Colonus, Theatro Technis, 19 January 2012

Athenian tortoise, May 2012
Athenian tortoise, May 2012

A multi-lingual production (English, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek) of Sophocles’ play in a productive small theatre in Camden. The last Greek play I saw was a No-Theatre-inspired, Greek-language production of Aeschylus’ Choephoroi in Oxford. The Mediterranean passion at Theatro Technis is a marked contrast to the stylized restraint of the Oxford performance.

Sophocles’ text gives us Oedipus at the end of his life, blind and guided by his daughter Antigone to the grove to the Eumenides at Colonus, a little outside the centre of Athens. It presents the conflict between the polluted figure of Oedipus, the sacred status of the grove, and the political demands of Athens and Oedipus’ native Thebes. The agon was suitably mirrored in the three languages. George Eugeniou’s Oedipus spoke entirely in Modern Greek, while pre-recorded (and sur-titled) Classical Greek provided an account of the mythical situation. The other characters spoke the rationalist language of English. Michael McEvoy’s Creon was the epitome of political management-speak. Theseus (Lucien Morgan), by contrast, offered a compassionate, if somewhat camp, welcome to Athens. The Eumenides are paradoxically fearsome and benevolent spirits, and they were constant silent and graceful presences upstage in this production. One image remains imprinted on my memory, which occurs once Oedipus and Antigone (Tania Batzoglou) are joined by Antigone’s sister Ismene (Nicoletta Procopiou), who arrives with inauspicious news from Thebes. Gathered around the central figure of Oedipus, the daughters completed a powerful trinity: clinging desperately together in a deeply compelling pyramid. At once presenting an image of strength and lamentation, the unity of the three figures evoked something of the power of a depiction of the lamentation over the dead Christ. But by focusing on the figure of Oedipus, the mythical symbol par excellence of a post-Freudian age, Eugeniou’s production creates an affective image that activates the mythico-religious in the present.