Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 90-100
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Antique Myth and Modern Mind:
Jacques Lacan's Version of Actaeon and the Fictions of Surrealism1
"'Actaeon ego sum: dominum cognoscite vestrum'
verba animo desunt; resonet latratibus aether"
— Ovid, Metamorphoses 2
After a long day of hunting, Actaeon, grandson of the legendary founder of Thebes, Cadmus, dismisses his companions and wanders about in the company of his hounds. Inadvertently (errore), he chances upon a grotto where the goddess Diana has found solace and bathes in the company of her nymphs. Diana, offended to be seen naked by a mortal, punishes Actaeon and turns him into a stag. As his own hounds begin to charge, Actaeon powerfully reiterates who he is. The exclamation Actaeon ego sum literally translates as "I am Actaeon," with an emphasis on ego, the first-person pronoun to remind us that Actaeon is not just anybody: he has a famous lineage, and his skills as a huntsman are known. Actaeon's physical appearance has changed. He no longer masters human speech. He can only groan, but "his mind has remained unchanged" (mens tantumpristine mansit). In proffering "Actaeon ego sum," the protagonist reaffirms his importance, for the exclamation encompasses both lineage and skills.
In November 1955, Jacques Lacan lectured, at the Neuro-psychiatric Clinic in Vienna, on the meaning of the return to Freud in psychoanalysis. An expanded version of this lecture, entitled "The Freudian Thing, or The Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis," was first published [End Page 90] in L' évolution psychiatrique (1956) and, later on, in Ecrits (1966). 3 In that essay, Lacan points out that psychoanalysis is "the discipline which [has] reestablished the bridge linking modern man to the ancient myths." The modern man in question is Freud. Conversely, Freud's fascination and identification with Oedipus make it clear that he is the one who reestablished the link between the modern mind and antique myths. The myth as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses serves Lacan's theorizing as a mythological program, and to it he adds some elements from Giordano Bruno's neo-Platonic interpretation of the same myth in the Heroic Frenzies (1585). 4 In this, Freud advances an already developing knowledge of antique religions and their relation to the modern psyche — he knew the work of Erwin Rhode, Nietzsche's friend, to give but one example.
The scope of Lacan's essay is twofold. First he denounces Freud's followers — especially, the American analysts — who have lost the historical sense of the discipline which they practice and who use psychoanalytic concepts in a dogmatic and paradigmatic manner. Then, with his characteristic wit, Lacan questions the naïve view which those same analysts hold about the scientific objectivity of the psychoanalytic method. Lacan views the objectivity of the discipline as "strictly bound up with the analytic situation, which, between the four walls that limit its field, can work perfectly well without one knowing where the north is since it lies along the axis of the couch which is supposed to point in the direction of the analyst. Psychoanalysis is the science of the mirages that appear within this field." 5 So it is within the context of an interrogation of Freud's premises and of the possible conditions for predicating truth that Lacan also establishes a link between the modern mind and antique myths by turning to the myth of Actaeon.
Lacan was at home with Greco-Roman literature. 6 Furthermore, Lacan enfolds this Actaeon story into his thoughts of psychoanalysis itself. The choice of Actaeon as a metaphor for Freud in pursuit of the Truth is striking enough to retain our attention and call for our own investigation — all the more that in the course of the following two decades, Lacan makes mention of the Actaeon myth in the Seminars On Transference (1961), on the Four Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964), and on Psychoanalysis Inside (1970).
When by inadvertent error (errore) Actaeon commits a...