Elevate Difference

Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedies and Modern Identities

In college, I heard a joke that summed up Freudian theory to a tee: A Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean your mother. This joke, referencing a Freudian theory that an unconscious thought may reveal itself as a verbal manifestation, sums up the popular idea of psychoanalysis, the branch of psychology Freud created. Popular culture often ceases at what Freud wrote in the nineteenth century, ignoring all of psychology before and after. Freud’s theories captured the popular imagination and have not given up their grip for 100 years. After all, how familiar are you with B.F. Skinner’s work?

Freud’s existence in popular culture has led to the application of his Interpretation of Dreams in numerous contexts, including looking back at the Greek Tragedies. Freud himself gave birth to the Oedipus complex to explain the male child’s gender identification as they grow up. The hypothesis has been simplified into the idea that a little boy wants to kill his father and marry his mother, which is a very simplistic reading of both the theory and the myth.

I bring this up to explain Freudian Mythologies. It is very telling that Bowlby is an English Professor, not a psychologist or a classicist. This book is in the unenviable position of being too complex for the average reader and not complex enough for even college students. Her reading of Freudian mythology and of the ancient tragedies is correct, but she adds nothing new to any of the criticisms. A further explanation of the Oedipus myth through a Freudian lens is not necessary; Freud explained it himself. A reading of the Danaeds is more interesting, but is ultimately concluded with the statement that Freud didn’t understand women. One must have read extensively into the Freudian catalogue, to point that they must be on a first name basis with Anna O. They also must be aware of the stories of Ion, the Danaeds and both versions of Oedipus. At the same time, they must not understand basic Freudian attachment.

After a while, the tragedies themselves become secondary to Bowlby’s attempts to explain Freudian theory. The more interesting story, one touched upon at the beginning of the book, is how Freud chose which version of which myth. Why did he omit the earlier version of Oedipus, where his birth father molests and kills a little boy, bringing on the curse Oedipus ultimately fulfills? Why did he not address Apollo as Ion’s father? This is an area where something new could be uncovered. Simply using Freudian mythology to describe Greek tragedy adds nothing; after all, Freud did it himself.

If you are comfortable but not overly familiar with Freud’s theories or the Greek tragedies, Freudian Mythologies might interest you. However, if you are acquainted with either, this book won’t hold your interest.

Written by: Taylor Rhodes, January 16th 2010