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The Song of Rolland: An Interpretation of Freud's A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis

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The Song of Rolland: An Interpretation of Freud's A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis
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  The Song of Rolland: An Interpretation of Freud’s “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”  Deborah Steinberger  “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” is a strange occasional piece, a letter Sigmund Freud offered to Romain Rolland in 1936, on that writer’s seventieth birthday. In the letter, Freud describes an uncanny experience he had some thirty years ago, which has lately been haunting him. He tells of his first visit to Athens, accompanied by his brother Alexander, and of their paradoxical resistance to making the trip despite their longing to see the city. The “disturbance of memory” of t he title refers to a sudden thought Freud had as he stood on the Acropolis for the first time: “So all this really does   exist, just as we learnt at school!” ( Freud 1936a, 241). Freud attributes this distortion, this illusion that he had actually doubted the existence of the Acropolis (which, he assures us, was not so), as well as the hesitation he and his brother had to visit Athens, to an internal inhibition: for both Freud and his brother, strong guilt feelings were attached to the trip. Travel, Freud explains, generally amounts to a rejection of the father, and thus a transgression against him: “I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel . . . is rooted . . . in dissatisfaction with home and family” (247). By achieving the financial success and acquiring the intellectual sophistication to appreciate the sights of Athens, “to go such a long way” (246), the brothers were surpassing their father: “The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the sons’ superiority.  1  Our father had been in business, he had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have me ant much to him” (247). In his introduction to the “Disturbance of Memory” Freud summarizes the course of his life’s work: [End Page 69] You know that the aim of my scientific work was to throw light upon unusual, abnormal or pathological manifestations of the mind  —  that is to say, to trace them back to the psychical forces operating behind them and to indicate the mechanisms at work. I began by attempting this upon myself and then went on to apply it to other people and finally, by a bold extension, to the human race as a whole. (239) The letter represents a return to the early genre of self-analysis to which The Interpretation of  Dreams    belongs. In fact, Freud compares the “feeling of derealization” (  Entfremdungsgefühl ) he experienced on the Acropolis t o a dream: such “failures in functioning” are “abnormal structures”—“like dreams, which, in spite of their regular occurrence in healthy people, serve us as models of psychological disorder” (244–  45). If the Acropolis experience is like a dream, then the letter to Romain Rolland is its Traumdeutung . In examining the letter, we find in fact many of the major themes of Freud’s treatise on dreams. In the preface to the second edition of The  Interpretation of Dreams , Freud (1900a)  writes, “This book . . . was, I found, a portion of my own self- analysis, my reaction to my father’s death—  that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life” (xxvi). Analysis of   the letter to Romain Rolland reveals the same central theme: Freud’s relationship to his father. In the letter, as in the autobiographical portions of The Interpretation of Dreams , we encounter dizzyingly overdetermined references,  complex networks of all usions, most of which lead back to Oedipus. Freud presents “A Disturbance of Memory” as a “little experience”  2  barely worthy of any attention, and he begins the piece with an apolog y to Rolland: “I am ten years older than you and my powers of production are at an end. All that I can find to offer you is the gift of an impoverished creature, who has ‘seen better days’” (239). Yet the experience was at least important enough to haunt h im after thirty years, the analysis interesting enough to present as a published birthday offering to a  prominent writer. Furthermore, this modest tone contrasts with Freud’s hyperbolic style in the letter, especially as reflected in his choice of metaphors: he [End Page 70] depicts the experience on the Acropolis as a full-blown heroic quest, in which he draws from the cast of heroes of The Interpretation of Dreams  to create his own personal mythology, an interlacing of the legends of Oedipus, Hannibal and Napoleon. Travel, for Freud (1936a) , has heroic overtones: “When one first catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean and experiences as realities cities and lands which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of desire  —  one feels oneself like a hero who has performed deeds of improbable greatness” (247).  Leonard Shengold (1966) and Harry Slochower (1970) have convincingly linked Freud’s enthusiasm for travel, and the experience on the Acropolis in particular, to a childhood desire for union with the mother.  3  Travel also represents, as we have seen, a symbolic murder of the father, the son’s rejection of his srcins. In the letter to Rolland, however, Freud writes from the point of view of the aged father, the father he had sought to surpass by learning and travel: he concludes, “And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forb earance and can travel no more” (248). Now that he can no longer travel he is haunted by the memory of his triumph, his “conquest” of Athens. The Greek setting, combined with the theme of empowerment at the father’s expense, immediately call to mind Oedipus. Yet strangely enough, Freud never mentions Oedipus in the letter, but only alludes to this figure in a roundabout way: he associates his “feeling of derealization” with the so- called “too good to be true” feeling common in those who are “wrecked by success,” and then refers the reader to a piece he had written on the subject twenty years earlier for a fuller explanation of this “truly paradoxical behavior” (242). In this 1916 essay, “Those Wrecked by Success,” Freud uses literary testimony (Ibsen’s  Rosmersholm ) to demonstrate that the Oedipus complex is the principal source of the guilt feelings that keep people of this character type from enjoying the achievement of what they most desire. Thus this letter about a travel inhibition manages to voyage around the name Oedipus. [End Page 71] Despite this curious omission, Oedipus saturates the letter; I am tempted to subtitle “A Disturbance of Memory” “The Death of Oedipus,” for its most important subtext is Oedipus at Colonus , the last play of Sophocles’s Oe dipus trilogy. In The Interpretation of Dreams , Freud was writing as a man in the prime of his life, discovering the Oedipus complex by means of the self- analysis contained in the pages of his great work. In “A Disturbance of Memory,” Freud’s trip becomes a reenactment of Oedipus’s final moments.  4   Oedipus at Colonus  takes place just outside of Athens, where Oedipus, led by Antigone and guided by the gods, finds his fated final resting place. He approaches Theseus as a suppliant, and the ruler of Athens promises him his protection. We learn from Ernest Jones (1955) that the first place Freud and his brother visited in Athens was in fact the temple of Theseus (24). In the letter to Rolland, Anna Freud plays the role of Antigone, the faithful daughter.  5  Freud (1936a) uses her to support his argument about the  mechanisms of defense: “An investigation is at this moment being carried on close at hand which is devoted to the study of these methods of defence: my daughter, the child-analyst, is writing a  book upon them” (245). Rank and Ferenczi, in turn, who broke with Freud in the period between 1924 and 1934, may well be cast as Polynices and Eteocles, the treacherous sons who desert their father. In Oedipus at Colonus , Oedipus dies a painless and marvelous death: “Certain it is that he was taken without a pang, without grief or agony  —  a passing more wonderful than that of any other man” ( Sophocles 1947, 121). We have seen how in the letter, Freud stresses his old age and  proximity to death (“my powers of production are at an end,” 239); consumed by illness as he was at the time he wrote to Rolland, Freud might have fantasized about such an end. In Sophocles’s play, the death of Oedipus is a sight only Theseus may glimpse, and even he may not disclose the sacred mystery of the Theban’s final moments. Freud invests the visit to the Acropolis with the mystical solemnity of the Sophocles play: “A certa in amount of reserve surrounded the whole episode; and it was this which had already interfered with our exchanging thoughts at Trieste” (243). The first metaphor Freud uses to illustrate his feeling of [End Page 72] disbelief at what he saw in Athens is that of the Loch Ness monster: “If I may make a slight exaggeration, it was as if someone, walking beside Loch Ness, suddenly caught sight of the form of the famous Monster stranded upon the shore. . .” (241). This creature recalls the sea monster that Pos eidon, responding to Theseus’s angry prayer, sent to destroy Hippolytus, to punish the youth for his supposed Oedipal strivings, his alleged plan to seduce his father’s wife. This surprising metaphor thus reinforces the Oedipus motif, the theme of retribution for sins committed against the father. Like Euripides’s  Hippolytus , Oedipus at Colonus  also contains a paternal malediction: Oedipus curses his sons Polynices and Eteocles for their bitter, destructive rivalry. The theme of sibling rivalry, too, is subtly interwoven into the letter. Freud writes that he was never able to discuss the strangeness of the Athens trip with Alexander (243). Now, however, as Mark Kanzer (1969) has remarked, he designates Rolland as a replacement for his brother; he proceeds to share his thoughts about the experience with this man who, as Freud seems to realize only as he composes the letter, is exactly the same age as Alexander Freud: “My brother is ten years younger than I am, so he is the same age as you  —a coincidence which has only now occurred to me” (240). The letter thus represents a “triangulation” of the Athens experience: Freud shares it with an outsider, a brother-substitute. This triangular structure closely resembles an imagined childhood scenario from The Interpretation of Dreams , in which Freud (1900a) gives expression to his infantile desire to “be alone in possession of the field” (485), to do away with any rivals. This “phantasied childhood scene” involves Freud’s nephew John, whom Freud describes in The Interpretation of  Dreams  as the principal rival of his childhood, the one who set the pattern for all his subsequent relations with contemporaries: All my friends have in a certain sense been re-incarnations of this first figure. . . My emotional life has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy. I have always been able to provide myself afresh with both, and it has not infrequently happened [End Page 73] that the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual. . . . (483)  In the imagined scene, a very young Freud tells John: “It serves you right if you had to make way for me. Why did you try to push me   out of the way? I don’t need you, I can easily find someone else to play with” (484). “Triangulation” (“finding someone else”) is thus a step in “taking the f  ield”: it reduces the importance of the brother  -rival. The words of this “childhood scene” could also easily reflect the thoughts of a cherished only son suddenly forced to share the spotlight with an infant brother  —this was twice Freud’s case. In their analyses of the letter to Rolland, Max Schur (1969) and Mark Kanzer (1969) have drawn attention to the hostility Freud admits having felt when his brother Julius was born (Freud was not yet two years old at the time); they emphasize his subsequent sense of guilt when the child died eight months later. Alexander’s birth when Freud was ten years old must have ins pired the same jealousy. Kanzer illustrates how Freud’s early ambivalence towards his brothers resurfaces in his relationship with the adult Alexander.  6  Accordingly, this autobiographical letter contains a subliminal effort to distinguish himself from his brother as a hero. Freud seems to want to appropriate the Acropolis experience for himself: in another metaphor for the momentous voyage, he depicts himself as Napoleon, and his bro ther as the emperor’s less illustrious brother. Describing the hidden reproach to the father contained in the accomplishment of reaching Athens, he remarks: “. . . if I may compare such a small event with a greater one, Napoleon, during his coronation as Emperor in Notre Dame, turned to one of his brothers  —  it must no doubt have been the eldest one, Joseph  —and remarked, ‘What would  Monsieur notre Père  have said to this, if he could have been here to- day?’” (247). The fact that Freud was his mother’s firstbor  n and favorite is related to this casting of himself as hero: after describing a series of “disguised Oedipus dreams” in The Interpretation of Dreams , Freud (1900a)  writes, “I have f  ound that people who know they are preferred or favoured by their [End Page 74] mother give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakable optimism which often seem like heroic attributes and bring actual success to their possessors”  (398). The name Moor occupies a privileged place in the heroic-son scenario that Freud sets up in The  Interpretation of Dreams  and here in the letter to Rolland: it becomes a signifier of maternal preference. Freud (1900a) constructs a mythology of his childhood: he recounts in Chapter Five of The Interpretation of Dreams   an anecdote he often heard repeated in his childhood: “At the time of my birth an old peasant-woman had prophesied to my proud mother that with her first-born child she had brought a great man into the world. [. . .] Could this have been the source of my thirst for grandeur?” (192). The old woman’s prediction appears to have been borne out by Freud’s remarkable appearance at birth: he was born with a caul, as well as with “such a tangle of black hair that my young mother declared I was a little Moor” (337). This detail is embedded in an explanatory footnote to one of his dreams in Chapter Six: in the dream, he is first apprehended in connection with a crime, but then it is determined that he is an honest man, and he is told he can go. Freud makes an association to a line from the Schiller play Fiesco , “The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go” (“Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen”), and then to a riddle incorporating that citation: “How old was the Moor when he had done his duty?” “One year old, because then he could go [‘ gehen ’—both ‘to go’ and ‘to walk’]” (337). This brings us back to the infant “Moor,” the pride and joy of Amalie and Jakob Freud. We might go so far as to call this joke Freud’s personal “riddle of the Sphinx” since, like the legendary conundrum, it blends child and adult into one creature.  There is yet another association to the figure of the Moor: we learn in The Interpretation of  Dreams  that as a schoolboy, Freud identified with Hannibal as a fellow Semite. The connection was strengthened by the young  Freud’s (1900a)   feeling that, like his favorite hero, he was “fated not to see Rome” (196)—  he long considered that city, like Athens, an unattainable goal, but he conquered this first travel inhibition in 1901. Hannibal and, by extension, the figure of the Moor, also evoke [End Page 75] the son’s feeling of superiority over the father. Freud tells of the shame he felt when as a boy he heard his father’s account of an attack by some raucous anti -semites who knocked the new fur cap off his head. Instead of seeking revenge, his father had simply gone into the street and picked up his cap. “This struck me as unheroic conduct,”  Freud (1900a)  writes; “I contrasted this situation with anoth er which suited my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had had a place in my  phantasies” (197). Perhaps this story explains the sudden appearance of the Moorish king Boabdil in this letter: the lament of Boabdil, “Ay de mi Alhama,” which emerges as abruptly as does the Loch Ness monster, is the surprising example (he calls it a “marginal case”) Freud chooses to ill ustrate the defense mechanism of denial. Like Oedipus at Colonus , the Spanish poem depicts a king’s final days; both works thus suggest the position of the Father of Psychoanalysis, uncertain of which direction his movement would take after his death, and they express the “feeling of  powerlessness” which  Freud (1936a) here attributes to Boabdil (246). Furthermore, the figure of the old, defeated ruler leads us to yet another work featuring an aged patriarch approaching his end, a work which I believe to be the second great subtext of the letter: Schiller’s play The  Robbers , which deals with the misfortunes of the old Count von Moor and his sons, Karl and Franz. Like Oedipus, and like Freud faced with the defections of his disciples, the Count feels betrayed by his two sons  —  with the distinction that in this case, one of the sons is a good man who has been undone by despair, while the other is an evil, monstrous schemer who covets all that his brother possesses. The Robbers  already figures in The Interpretation of Dreams : Freud recalls having presented a scene from the play with his nephew John, that formidable rival of his early childhood. Fittingly, one of the major themes of Schiller’s play is the fierce rivalry between Franz and Karl von Moor. The other central theme is the theme of patricide, of the Oedipal hero. The scene that Freud and his nephew performed was a dramatization [End Page 76] of a song which Karl, overcome with guilt after hearing reports that his father has died in his absence, sings in Act IV, scene 5. It is a dialogue between Brutus and the murdered Caesar, in which Caesar laments, “Brutus became the greatest Roman/ When his iron pierced his father’s breast” (“Brutus ist der grösste Römer worden/ Da in Vaters Brust sein Eisen drang”) ( Schiller 1988, 130).  7  These lines echo Franz von Moor’s slanderous description of Karl as a “child whose continual study is to have no father” (“Ein. . . Kind, dessen ewiges Studium ist, keinen Vater zu haben” (I, 1, 26). This phrase can also be applied to Freud: by embracing Hannibal as his hero, Freud had sacrificed his father, who could not withstand the comparison to Hamilcar Barca; by becoming an educated, well-to-do world traveler, by reaching the Acropolis, he repeated the affront to the humble merchant. But now an old man, Freud identifies more with Caesar than with Brutus, slayer of tyrants, more with Oedipus at Colonus than with the young Oedipus at Thebes, more with the decrepit Count

Teoria cognitiva

Jun 2, 2018
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