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