- Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self ed. by Vanda Zajko, Ellen O’Gorman
This collection, originating from a 2009 conference at the University of Bristol, features nineteen studies on the relationship between ancient myth (largely understood) and psychoanalysis. This is doubtless a volume from which scholars of ancient cultures as well as readers interested in psychoanalysis and Western self-definition have much to learn. Yet the terms of the overarching discussion are at times unclear, and some fundamental questions are unanswered by the project as a whole; thus the book invites reflection for future explorations. My comments are intended as a contribution to this ongoing debate.
The introduction by Zajko and O’Gorman surveys the points of intersection between ancient myth and psychoanalysis. I missed, however, a clear explanation of why the title mentions “Classical Myth,” given that the contents go beyond [End Page 264] both the strictly classical and the mythological stricto sensu. Moreover, I sometimes wondered what paradigm, what mainstream canon, the scholars assembled here were positing as their interlocutor(s) to challenge. Expressions such as “it is taken [by scholars],” “it is believed,” “there is now” curiously imply an “official” scholarly standpoint; but there is no such standpoint, and the positing of it is in any case at odds with the volume’s pluralistic premises. Thematically, I was surprised to find barely a mention of Jung, while Lacan is ubiquitous; the Lacanian emphasis may reflect a current or recent fashion, but it fails to do justice to psychoanalysis as a historical datum.
The bulk of the volume is organized into five sections whose headings, like the individual chapter titles, reveal a double movement: on the one hand, the influence of Greco-Roman antiquity on Freud’s thinking and on other psychoanalytical developments, and on the other hand, the use of psychoanalysis to interpret ancient texts. This twofold program, involving “ancient and modern stories of the self,” deserves in my view a clearer presentation and advocacy, especially in the introduction. What, for example, is the relationship between psychoanalysis’ fascination with the ancient and modern Western scholars’ ease in applying psychoanalytical grids to their Greco-Roman hermeneutic objects, albeit in defiance of the strong caveats against anachronism that our discipline has long assimilated? Only the first part of this twofold program is discussed by the editors, while the second part, “psychoanalytical criticism,” although it constitutes in some cases the core of the discussion, is never clearly related to the reception aspect.
“Contexts for Freud” is the strongest section, with valuable studies that survey aspects of psychoanalytical thought in their historical setting and within Freud’s intellectual biography. Outstanding here is B. M. King’s “Freud’s Empedocles: the Future of a Dualism.” The second section, on “Freud and Vergil,” is a sort of monographic ekphrasis on the Augustan poet. The tone for this section is well set by G. A. Staley’s “Freud’s Vergil,” which takes its start from Freud’s famous epigraph to Traumdeutung, flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, to discuss the role played by Vergilian poetry in Freud’s discussion of Western civilization and its dark sides.
The third section, “Beyond the Canon,” expands the inquiry to texts less commonly read in a psychoanalytical key: the rhetoric of Athenian law (V. Wohl, “The Mythic Foundation of Law”); Stoic philosophy and its use of myth (K. Lampe, “Obeying Your Father: Stoic Theology Between Myth and Masochism”); Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta (E. Gunderson, “Valerius Maximus and the Hysteria of Virtue”); and Roman satire (P. A. Miller, “Mythology and the Abject in Imperial Satire”). The pieces in section 4, “Myth as Narrative and Icon,” are more essayistic than those in the rest of the volume. Notable here is M. Harris Williams’ “Playing with Fire: Prometheus and the Mythological Consciousness,” which reads the [Aeschylean] Prometheus as staging “the growing pains entailed in the process of imaginative thinking.”
The fifth and final section, “Reflexivity...