Oedi­pus, Maddy and the trou­ble with myths

WHERETHREE ROADS MEET

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

RE­VIEWED BY NATASHA LEHRER

SAL­LEY VICK­ERS, WHO is both a psy­cho­an­a­lyst and a nov­el­ist, ac­cepted the chal­lenge of Canon­gate’s Myths se­ries — to retell a myth “in a con­tem­po­rary and mem­o­rable way” — with a smart con­ceit, imag­in­ing an en­counter be­tween Tire­sias and Sig­mund Freud, an an­cient myth­i­cal char­ac­ter and the great mod­ern reteller of an­cient myths, in the last weeks of Freud’s life.

One can imag­ine Tire­sias, the ragged, blind sooth­sayer, not even turn­ing heads as he tramps across Hamp­stead Heath to meet Freud at his Mares­field Gar­dens home, where the great doc­tor is con­fined to his bed, his mouth rav­aged by the can­cer that will soon kill him. What is one more un­kempt, in­tense-look­ing, badly dressed man stalk­ing across that stretch of wilder­ness, whose paths are de­ter­mined by the growth of an­cient trees that cut through the grime of the city?

As the paths that criss-cross the Heath con­nect dif­fer­ent parts of North Lon­don, so the Heath it­self pro­vides a van­tage point for view­ing the whole city. And, just as Tire­sias’s and Freud’s en­counter joins up dif­fer­ent myth­i­cal mo­ments in his­tory, yok­ing to­gether an­cient and mod­ern, so their meet­ing is a van­tage point from which to view the Oedi­pus myth that, ac­cord­ing to Freud, de­fines all hu­man re­la­tion­ships. Via a some­what cir­cuitous route, Hamp­stead be­comes a per­fect, if un­ex­pected, metaphor for all hu­man life and de­sires. Freud, bedrid­den and dy­ing, lies on the fa­mous couch en­act­ing the talk­ing cure that he in­vented.

Much of the time, how­ever, Vick­ers’s novel feels freighted with its own clev­er­ness, as the an­a­lyst be­comes the analysand. “Tell me the end, Tire­sias. You know, I be­lieve I’ve had a fear of end­ings,” Freud says, his own end nigh. Where Three Roads Meet doesn’t feel like a novel. Al­though it is con­structed around a fic­tional con­ceit, its vir­tu­ally nar­ra­tive-free di­a­logue gives the book the na­ture of a recorded ses­sion of anal­y­sis: wordy and un­dra­matic.

Yet, to­wards the end, when Tire­sias re­counts his ver­sion of Oedi­pus’s dis­cov­ery of who he is, Vick­ers’s story takes off elec­tri­fy­ingly. It is then that Vick- ers’s pur­pose — to re­turn Oedi­pus his story — be­comes clear. Since Freud’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the Oedi­pus nar­ra­tive, one of the great myths of Greek cul­ture has slipped its moor­ings, be­com­ing as­so­ci­ated pri­mar­ily with mod­ern psy­cho­anal­y­sis and its bas­tard son, pop psy­chol­ogy. We talk of the Oedi­pal com­plex with­out know­ing the story, we re­fer to it with­out think­ing of the pro­found and ter­ri­ble hu­man suf­fer­ing that its lin­ea­ments trace.

Vick­ers retells what hap­pened at Thebes be­tween Oedi­pus and Jo­casta. Vick­ers’s sooth­sayer re­minds us that our hunger for myth is based on a mis­placed sense of em­pa­thy.

We­liv­einan­age­whenour news­pa­pers fur­nish us daily with­mod­ern­myth­sof­suf­fer­ing and glory: the dis­ap­pear­ance of Madeleine McCann, the pain of Amy Wine­house, the ex­ploits of Paris Hil­ton, the con­quests of Kate Moss. Lives played out in the pub­lic arena are noth­ing less than mod­ern myths by which we as­sign mean­ing to our own ex­is­tence. Natasha Lehrer is a trans­la­tor and critic

PHOTO: AP

Feel­ing anx­ious, Dr Freud?

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