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  • Response to A.D. Mills Review of The Ancient Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and the Ancient Text
  • Vered Lev Kenaan (bio)

Oedipal Time

Psychoanalysis has been linked to classical antiquity from its birth. The study of Hellenic and Roman antiquities was a formative inspiration for the development of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. But how should we today understand the relationship between the study of the Greco-Roman world and the modern analytic and therapeutic theory of the soul? As a classicist and a comparatist studying Freud's fascination with antiquity, it became clear to me that the key to this question is in the Freudian unconscious, whose textual and cultural potential is the core of my book, The Ancient Unconscious.

The unconscious is located neither in antiquity nor in modernity. It functions, rather, as an intersection between ancient and modern plots, and shows itself in the juxtaposition of ancient and modern texts. Take, for example, Freud's 1936 essay "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," where he recalls and analyzes a dramatic episode in his history. This episode is a central junction in my book. In 1936 Freud, at 80, was still in Vienna, three years before he died as an exile in London. In his essay he returns to a memory of his visit to Athens in 1904 when he was 48 years old. This memory, and its uncanny aftermath in consciousness, had continued to occupy Freud since then. His account of the episode amalgamates different textual phases of his memory, and through them Freud reflects on the dynamic and changing senses of antiquity that have unfolded through different points in his life. The memory concerns a journey that Freud and his younger brother, Alexander, made to Athens from Trieste. The opportunity to go abroad to Athens came unexpectedly and filled the brothers with a strange gloom and tormenting deliberations; these are eventually shown to camouflage their high expectations of visiting the Acropolis. The ancient destination aroused great excitement in the two travelers. Ancient Athens, a synecdoche [End Page 766] for classical antiquity, had been an object of fascination for Freud, who had studied Greek and Latin at the gymnasium in Vienna. For Freud, climbing on the Acropolis is an act of pilgrimage. As an archeological site, the Acropolis stirs him to imagine its Olympian dwellers, prompting an overflow of ideas of sublime beauty. Moreover, on its slopes he could still observe the ancient remains of the theater of Dionysus where Sophocles' Oedipus Rex was performed in the fifth century BCE.

Oedipus and Freud are the two main protagonists of my book The Ancient Unconscious, and while they are well known to you, I hope that the way I connect them in my book will give you a new perspective. The book grew out of research on dreams and dream interpretation in antiquity, including, among other things, the oedipal dream. And of course I asked myself was there really such a thing as an oedipal dream in the ancient world? How could one think about their unconscious minds? This question led me to delve into the unconscious from an assumption of an evident and even essential difference between ancient and modern dreams. The ancient dream looks forward to the unknown future, while the modern dream as Freud formulated it moves towards the forgotten past. I became interested in these two temporal poles and saw a similarity between ancient and modern dreams; in both a textual system is at work in which past and present are allied and mutually resonant.

Freud's ascent to the Acropolis offered me a metaphor for the double movement I wanted to describe in my book, one that is central to the Oedipus myth: a bidirectional flow in time. If I were to describe in one sentence what the book aims to do, it would be that it seeks to articulate the dynamic current of time in the unconscious, which finds mythic expression in the dialectical to and fro movement of Oedipus. The anachronic products of the unconscious are expressions of an Oedipal time. In making room for a fusion of times as central to our psychological experience, we also discover the cultural and...


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pp. 766-771
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