An­cient sto­ries re­veal es­sen­tial truths for mod­ern times when art­fully reimag­ined, writes Stella Clarke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

gos­sip mags, those odd names be­long in the des­ic­cated an­nals of classical mythol­ogy, as dead as Latin to our ears, and about as rel­e­vant to our mo­ment, don’t you think?

The founders of Canon­gate’s The Myths se­ries ( pub­lish­ing ma­gi­cian Jamie Byng and scholar Karen Arm­strong, au­thor of A Short His­tory of Myth ) think not.

Bri­tish writ­ers Ali Smith and Sal­ley Vick­ers join 100 high- grade au­thors, in­clud­ing Chinua Achebe, Mar­garet Atwood, A. S. By­att and Jeanette Win­ter­son, in breed­ing lilacs out of dead land and show­ing by their con­tri­bu­tions to this se­ries that there is still end­less truth and ex­cite­ment to be found in re­vis­it­ing an­cient

SPON­TA­NEOUS sex- change may be less alarm­ing to­day than a man pash­ing his mother but many of us would, pre­sum­ably, have trou­ble em­pathis­ing with ei­ther sen­sa­tion. This is un­der­stand­able: the ori­gin of such sto­ries is his­tor­i­cally re­mote, in an­cient so­ci­eties that could visit life’s weird­ness be­cause they held the mas­ter- key of divine caprice. Those cred­u­lous peo­ple have noth­ing to do with us; we are mod­ern, ra­tio­nal, in con­trol. Not.

As Sig­mund Freud sus­pected, scratch the sur­face and there we are, lust­ing af­ter mum, af­ter death, af­ter ev­ery­thing but what should rea­son­ably be the case in a civilised so­ci­ety, wher­ever that may be found.

If not for the spec­u­la­tive con­tor­tions of Freud, would the name of Oedi­pus reg­is­ter mean­ing­fully at all? What about the myth of Iphis, the girl who be­came a boy, got the bits with­out surgery, heard of that?

Though mil­len­ni­ums ago imag­in­ing such scan­dalous things may have been more fun than sto­ries. Risky as the ven­ture seems in a va­pidly sec­u­lar, ma­te­ri­al­ist so­ci­ety, their con­tem­po­rary rein­ter­pre­ta­tions make com­pul­sive read­ing.

Vick­ers’s short novel Where Three Roads Meet in­tro­duces us to Freud in the months be­fore he died. Vick­ers imag­ines Freud sud­denly chal­lenged with a vig­or­ous new ver­sion of the tragic tale of Oedi­pus. It reaches him in Lon­don via the friendly com­pany of an an­cient, spec­tral vis­i­tor, the myth­i­cal fig­ure of the blind prophet Tire­sias, who moves across the heath to un­load his story in Freud’s Hamp­stead home.

With Mark Ed­mund­son’s The Death of Sig­mund Freud: The Legacy of his Last Days out this year, and a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of Freud’s vast col­lec­tion of an­tiq­ui­ties show­ing at Monash Univer­sity’s Clay­ton cam­pus ( and early next year at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s Ni­chol­son Mu­seum), it’s time for a new look at Freud.

Un­til now, his in­flu­ence has been felt by most of us at one re­move. At the se­ri­ous end, he has loomed as a du­bi­ous and trou­bling pa­tri­arch in the amor­phous hin­ter­land of con­tem­po­rary aca­demic pur­suits, in­clud­ing psy­chol­ogy, phi­los­o­phy, so­ci­ol­ogy, and lit­er­ary and cul­tural stud­ies. At the comic end, his mo­nop­oly of the nexus be­tween sex and neu­ro­sis has in­formed the hu­mour of Woody Allen’s films. The new Freud is be­com­ing hu­man; an un­re­pen­tant smoker and an ail­ing vic­tim of can­cer; a be­reaved grandad; a lov­ing fa­ther; a flawed in­tel­lec­tual war­rior; a refugee from Nazi tyranny; a keeper of the flame, not of science but of art, of hu­man­ity’s ur­gent creative im­pulse.

This is Vick­ers’s Freud. He is brave, sad and lonely, in love with his daugh­ter and his dog, both equally de­voted. He is bril­liant and un­com­pro­mis­ing in the face of death. In pain, and speech­less due to his can­cer­ous mouth, he lis­tens avidly to the sight­less prophet Tire­sias. Above all, Freud is a wise man, pay­ing at­ten­tion not in or­der to ex­plain, but to learn.

As Freud lis­tens to Tire­sias’s story of how Oedi­pus re­ally came to marry his mother and kill his fa­ther, he opens his mind. When Tire­sias tells him that Oedi­pus most ter­ri­bly blinds him­self out

of shame rather than by way of sym­bolic cas­tra­tion, Freud tac­itly ac­cepts. Yet that does not nec­es­sar­ily al­ter the sub­ter­ranean im­pact of the story that Freud dis­cerns, the driv­ing hu­man de­sire to re­gain per­fect ac­cess to our source.

Vick­ers’s Oedi­pus is an al­pha male, a ruler of wis­dom and in­tegrity who makes two ex­treme mis­takes. Vick­ers, an ex- aca­demic and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, loosens Freud’s rigid sym­bolic grip on the myth and rein­vig­o­rates the di­vini­ties in­volved to make them ( as they once were) au­ton­o­mous and un­pre­dictable. Oedi­pus and his par­ents be­come vivid in­di­vid­u­als again: Vick­ers al­lows mis­takes and choices back into the story. The mo­ment where the veil is ripped from Oedi­pus’s in­ces­tu­ous crime is freed from the in­tel­lec­tual sta­sis of a com­plex and be­comes as dra­matic and mov­ing as watch­ing Sopho­cles’s play may once have been.

In­fan­ti­cide is a theme picked up in both of th­ese tales and is per­haps the point at which th­ese myth­i­cal treat­ments be­come most shock­ing and most dis­tant, though glob­ally the prac­tice con­tin­ues.

The Oedi­pus tragedy is set in mo­tion when his fa­ther, King Laius, re­ceives orac­u­lar no­tice from Tire­sias that one day he will be killed by his son. Queen Jo­casta is thus im­pelled, as she imag­ines, to kill her baby boy. His tiny legs are pinned to­gether and he is left in wilder­ness to per­ish; but he is res­cued, and the fate­ful wheels turn.

Scot­tish writer Smith’s even more suc­cinct Girl Meets Boy takes the myth of Iphis, a girl trans­formed by divine in­ter­ven­tion into a boy on her wed­ding night so that she could please her beloved girl­friend, Ian­the. It is based on one of the jol­lier tales in Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses . Smith openly in­vokes the myth founded in a his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity: baby girls were rou­tinely put to death for be­ing too much of a bur­den.

On the jacket of this novella, Smith re­ceives a big rap from Win­ter­son, which hints at the bias of her writ­ing. Smith is con­fess­edly in­ter­gen­der and shares with Win­ter­son a pas­sion for girl meets girl jour­neys of dis­cov­ery, an art­ful de­fi­ance in gen­der con­struc­tion and sex­u­al­ity, and a su­per­charged lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion.

Smith hardly needs a leg up from Win­ter­son. Her sec­ond novel, Ho­tel World ( 2001), was short- listed for the Orange and Man Booker prizes and her third novel, The Ac­ci­den­tal , won the 2005 Whit­bread novel award. In Girl Meets Boy Smith pertly trans­lates the Iphis myth into a rap­tur­ous story of les­bian love and sub­ver­sive fe­male be­hav­iour in mod­ern Scot­land. Two sis­ters, Anthea and Imo­gen, re­ceive rude awak­en­ings, partly sex­ual, partly po­lit­i­cal.

Imo­gen works for a wa­ter- bot­tling cor­po­ra­tion called Pure, dom­i­nated by sleazy and ra­pa­cious busi­ness­men keen to rip off the world’s in­creas­ingly thirsty mul­ti­tudes. Ul­ti­mately, she sees the light. This is largely due to the di­vinely se­duc­tive Robin, Anthea’s new girl­friend, and her ‘‘ in­ter­ven­tion­ist acts of protest’’: reams of graf­fiti all around town cry­ing out, for ex­am­ple, against the pri­vati­sa­tion of rain and the many mil­lions of new­born girls killed around the world.

With hu­mour, a light touch and, at times, a provoca­tively heavy hand, Smith works up a cri­tique of the dam­ag­ing and dom­i­nant myths we live by now, which in­clude the pri­macy of profit over global sur­vival, and of male over fe­male.

Her sketches of bin- able men are sharp, such as Dom and Norm, self- in­flat­ing with Grolsch, toxic with con­tempt for women, and Keith the boss at Pure who swings Imo­gen around in her of­fice chair to smother her with his stuffed trouser front. Smith’s ease with her myth­i­cal brief must stem partly from her ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing an ear­lier in­car­na­tion in aca­demic life. She stud­ied, un­suc­cess­fully, for a doc­tor­ate at Cam­bridge Univer­sity where she ex­am­ined joy in modernist Ir­ish and Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. It seems joy was an anath­ema to her ex­am­in­ers; they could ap­pre­ci­ate nei­ther her cre­ativ­ity nor her un­ruly am­bi­tion in this project. Smith’s own en­joy­ment of her sub­ject, how­ever, resur­faces here with an ex­ul­tant stylis­tic homage to James Joyce. Her po­etic, ec­static rush of words when she cuts loose from the story to plunge into the an­ar­chic joys of les­bian love (‘‘ I was a she was a he was a we were a girl and a girl and a boy and a boy . . .’’) is a modernist legacy.

Vick­ers, too, in go­ing to meet Freud, is en­ter­ing the ter­ri­tory of early 20th- cen­tury Euro­pean modernism, with its yearn­ing, back­ward gaze to what Friedrich Ni­et­zsche called hori­zons ‘‘ ringed about with myth’’. Freud, who took pride in the sci­en­tific premise of his psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­plo­rations, went dig­ging about in an­cient Hel­lenic myth for a ve­hi­cle for his cog­i­ta­tions on male sex­u­al­ity. He ob­ses­sively col­lected frag­ments of an­cient his­tory, shoring them, per­haps, against our ru­ins ( to pull in T. S. Eliot’s beau­ti­ful, shat­tered poem The Waste Land , an­other haunt of Tire­sias). The pace of so­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal change, the ter­rors of World War I, the night­mar­ish approach of Nazism and then an­other apoca­lyp­tic world war mov­ing in­dis­tinctly into pub­lic con­scious­ness, like W. B. Yeats’s fright­en­ing sphinx- like beast in The Sec­ond Com­ing , all this sent sen­si­tive minds back to myth­i­cal ar­range­ments of con­fu­sion.

Since we are con­fronting a new apoca­lyp­tic vi­sion, that of our nur­tur­ing world’s demise due to cli­mate change and our own blind­ness, per­haps it is no bad time to be gaz­ing myth- ward. The deep emo­tional en­er­gies and ele­men­tal ideas of an­cient sto­ries can be re­fresh­ing. Ar­ro­gantly god­less, we’ve hardly done that well with­out them. Stella Clarke is a lit­er­ary critic based in Can­berra, has a PhD from War­wick Univer­sity and has taught ex­ten­sively in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia.

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