- Review Essay: The Romance of Tragedy and Psychoanalysis
In The Interpretation of Dreams, in the chapter on dreamwork under the heading of “absurd dreams,” Freud tells of the following dream: “A man who had nursed his father during his last illness and had been deeply grieved by his death, had the following senseless dream some time afterwards. His father was alive once more and was talking to him in his usual way, but (the remarkable thing was that) he had really died, only he did not know it.”1 This dream could symbolize the presumed state of psychoanalysis itself: really dead, only it doesn’t know it. The death of psychoanalysis has been proclaimed repeatedly, starting in Freud’s own lifetime. If psychoanalysis were dead, classics would probably not be “deeply grieved” by the fact. The discipline has never tried hard to repress its aggression toward the discourse that appropriated Oedipus.2 But in her intriguing new study, Victoria Pedrick wagers that there’s life in the old man yet and that if we don’t know it, luckily he does.
Pedrick’s Euripides, Freud, and the Romance of Belonging (Baltimore 2007) is an unusual and engaging book. It sets itself an ambitious task: to read Euripides’ Ion alongside Freud’s “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” (the case study of the Wolf Man) and to illuminate each text by the light of the other. The point of commonality is both texts’ interest in “the questions of how and why our origins affect our identities” (1). More precisely, both deal with a specific tale of origin (the titular “romance of belonging”) that narrates the moment when the parents decide to embrace the child as a member of the family or, the unhappy alternative, to abandon it. This moment often evades detection because once it is made, Pedrick argues, the rejected option becomes unthinkable; and yet, in good psychoanalytic fashion, that alternative lingers in the family’s unconscious, generating anxiety in both the child and the parents and destabilizing the family structure predicated on its repudiation. That moment of origin (which is the origin not just of the child but of the family itself) is traumatic whichever choice is made, as the two texts illustrate. “Wolf Man” includes the paradigmatic primal scene: awakening [End Page 89] suddenly from a nap at the age of one and a half, the child saw his parents engaged in what one would politely call “the act of his engendering,” a sight that proved traumatizing for him even though he understood its full significance only in retrospect. This scene (whether real or fantasied is one of the central problems of the case study) becomes the emotionally charged origin myth not only for the Wolf Man himself but for psychoanalysis as a discourse struggling to assert its authority and the scientific basis of its method. While “Wolf Man” dramatizes the trauma of belonging, Ion is a tragedy of abandonment. It is the story of Ion, a mythic king of Athens, abandoned by his mother Kreousa and raised in Delphi unaware that he is the son of Apollo. Set against the backdrop of the social practice of infantile abandonment, Ion’s family reunion shows how this past act haunts parent and child alike. Pedrick traces the ripple effects of the original choice—embrace or abandonment—through the two texts, in the various and often conflicting narratives of foundation it generates, in the metaphors that are its symptoms, and in the relationships and identities it makes possible or impossible.
The first chapter (“The Romance of Belonging: Texts and Contexts”) introduces the two texts and Pedrick’s method of reading them together (more on which below). Her prose here and throughout the book is elegant and jargon-free, and her detailed exposition of the texts does not assume intimate knowledge of either: these features will make the book equally accessible and valuable to readers in classics and in psychoanalysis. This first chapter also introduces some of the key themes that will emerge over the rest of the book: the need to tell an authoritative tale of origins and to tell it over and over again; the...