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  • A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World
  • Sarah Winter
A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World. Richard H. Armstrong. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. xi + 305 pp. $39.95 ($21.95 pb).

In his introductory chapter of his recent companion volume to the "Darwin" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, curator Niles Eldredge highlights Darwin's continued relevance to the twenty-first century in contrast to the depleted influence of Freud, Marx, and Charles Dickens, the author whose image was replaced by Darwin's on the British ten-pound note in 2000: "with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the advent of Prozac, society at large seems to have metabolized these two giants [Marx and Freud] to the point where mere mention of their names fails to stir much passion one way or the other." Darwin, however, "has not been fully absorbed into the mainstream fabric of our collective Western culture" (2005, 7–8).1 While I support Eldredge's goals to convey Darwin's process of discovery and to inform readers and exhibition attendees about the indispensability of evolutionary theory to all the fields of modern biology, I also find it curious that he resorts to the cliché of upholding the importance of Darwin at the expense of Marx, Freud, and even Dickens. We can assimilate Darwin to Western culture, Eldredge implies, only if we disentangle and quarantine his ideas from the psychological, political, and narrative afterlife of the nineteenth century in the traumatic twentieth century.

Richard H. Armstrong's excellent book, A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World, not only makes a significant contribution to Freud studies but also offers a corrective to the kind of salvage project in relation to nineteenth-century intellectual culture represented by Eldredge's generalizations. In response to this larger question of how to define the historical sources of our contemporary discussions about science and culture, Armstrong offers a detailed investigation both of psychoanalysis as a form of cultural memory and of our collective associations of Freud with antiquity: "As we move farther and farther away from the twentieth century, the kind of Freud [End Page 507] we will have to live with will depend on the quality of our own memory work as Post-Freudians" (7).

In effect, Armstrong demonstrates that if we overlook or set aside Freud's construction of human psychology in relation to the ancient archive, we also forgo a crucial set of insights about the forms of cultural continuity that Freud, in dialogue with other early twentieth-century cultural historians, sought to establish between antiquity and modernity, so that psychoanalysis would play the "role of mediator between established science and ancient tradition" (92). To the history of psychoanalysis and of the modern disciplines more generally, then, Armstrong's book supplies a "mnemohistory," or "a history of acts of remembrance" (3), in the form of a compelling and comprehensive account of Freud's lifelong engagement with the cultural history of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Near East.

One of the central aspects of psychoanalysis as cultural memory lies in the way it incorporates into twentieth-century understandings of the inner life a perspective on classical civilization as "a narrative nexus and a locus of sensuous experience that beckons for acts of synaesthesis, reconstruction, and renewal" (19). Armstrong argues that psychoanalysis does not simply reinterpret the ancient archive for its own purposes, but also "reflects more deeply the cultural logic, the values, the textual maneuvers and nuances, and even the psychological interests of the ancient world" (5). As Armstrong points out in his analysis of Freud's multifaceted uses of the metaphor of archeology as an "alter ego that helped to give shape to the analytic enterprise as it came to define itself" (117), Freud's excavation and reshaping of the ancient archive also entail an essential paradox or conflict. This conflict emerges between Freud's attempt to develop foundational empirical psychological techniques for treatment and theorization and his participation in the tendency of Western thought to associate classical Greece with "the sensuous immediacy and naked human truth embodied in the material and textual remains of antiquity," and...


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