The Song of Rolland: An Interpretation of Freud's "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis"
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The Song of Rolland:
An Interpretation of Freud’s “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”

“A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” is a strange occasional piece, a letter Sigmund Freud offered to Romain Rolland in 1936, on that writer’s seventieth birthday. In the letter, Freud describes an uncanny experience he had some thirty years ago, which has lately been haunting him. He tells of his first visit to Athens, accompanied by his brother Alexander, and of their paradoxical resistance to making the trip despite their longing to see the city. The “disturbance of memory” of the title refers to a sudden thought Freud had as he stood on the Acropolis for the first time: “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” (Freud 1936a, 241). Freud attributes this distortion, this illusion that he had actually doubted the existence of the Acropolis (which, he assures us, was not so), as well as the hesitation he and his brother had to visit Athens, to an internal inhibition: for both Freud and his brother, strong guilt feelings were attached to the trip. Travel, Freud explains, generally amounts to a rejection of the father, and thus a transgression against him: “I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel . . . is rooted . . . in dissatisfaction with home and family” (247). By achieving the financial success and acquiring the intellectual sophistication to appreciate the sights of Athens, “to go such a long way” (246), the brothers were surpassing their father: “The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the sons’ superiority. 1 Our father had been in business, he had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have meant much to him” (247).

In his introduction to the “Disturbance of Memory” Freud summarizes the course of his life’s work: [End Page 69]

You know that the aim of my scientific work was to throw light upon unusual, abnormal or pathological manifestations of the mind—that is to say, to trace them back to the psychical forces operating behind them and to indicate the mechanisms at work. I began by attempting this upon myself and then went on to apply it to other people and finally, by a bold extension, to the human race as a whole.

(239)

The letter represents a return to the early genre of self-analysis to which The Interpretation of Dreams belongs. In fact, Freud compares the “feeling of derealization” (Entfremdungsgefühl) he experienced on the Acropolis to a dream: such “failures in functioning” are “abnormal structures”—“like dreams, which, in spite of their regular occurrence in healthy people, serve us as models of psychological disorder” (244–45). If the Acropolis experience is like a dream, then the letter to Romain Rolland is its Traumdeutung. In examining the letter, we find in fact many of the major themes of Freud’s treatise on dreams. In the preface to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud (1900a) writes, “This book . . . was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death—that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life” (xxvi). Analysis of the letter to Romain Rolland reveals the same central theme: Freud’s relationship to his father. In the letter, as in the autobiographical portions of The Interpretation of Dreams, we encounter dizzyingly overdetermined references, complex networks of allusions, most of which lead back to Oedipus. Freud presents “A Disturbance of Memory” as a “little experience” 2 barely worthy of any attention, and he begins the piece with an apology to Rolland: “I am ten years older than you and my powers of production are at an end. All that I can find to offer you is the gift of an impoverished creature, who has ‘seen better days’” (239). Yet the experience was at least important enough to haunt him after thirty years, the analysis interesting enough to present as a published birthday offering to a prominent writer. Furthermore, this modest tone contrasts with Freud’s hyperbolic style in the letter, especially as reflected...