Symposium Introduction

Classical Studies has long been resistant to, if not hostile towards, psychoanalytic theory originating in Sigmund Freud’s so-called “discovery” of the unconscious.1 Due in large part to its resistance to anachronism, classical philology in particular has guarded its disciplinary walls against inaccurately or inappropriately attributing psychoanalytic concepts to ancient sources, even as, and perhaps especially because, Freud relied on the figure of the antiquity in his explication of the unconscious. In her recent book, The Ancient Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and the Ancient Text, Vered Lev Kenaan calls for a “loosening” of philology’s “unwavering commitment to historical contextualization” (17) in order to open a new terrain for analyzing the complex relationships between antiquity and modernity. By advancing a theory of the unconscious intimately wed to textual hermeneutics, Lev Kenaan explores points of contact between the past and the past’s future crucial for the interpretation of ancient texts.

But Lev Kenaan does not simply apply psychoanalytic theory to ancient texts; nor does she seek to revive a simple objective understanding of the unconscious—that is, she does not try to locate or define a “positive” account of the unconscious in the experiences of the ancient authors or tragic protagonists of the texts she so astutely interprets throughout her book. Such an approach would surely fall victim to the charges of anachronism against which Classical Studies defends its object of study. Instead, she develops a theoretically sophisticated understanding of the unconscious on the basis of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics according to which meaning involves the “dynamic relationship between ancient texts and their modern readers” (34). The result is something akin to what she imagines in her first chapter, that is, “an encounter between two strangers,” where Oedipus, Freud, Antaeus, Hegel, and many others mix company.

The book is thus a composite structure, which combines seemingly disparate elements into a single whole, much like the dreams to which Lev Kenaan owes her thought. Just as she emphasizes Freud’s metaphorical description of the dream as a “weaver’s masterpiece” that “[blends] past and present impressions” (11), so, too, does The Ancient Unconscious include subtle analyses of the textual entanglements between antiquity and modernity. While Oedipus of Sophocles’ play, whose “experience in the past cannot be withdrawn from his future” (33), is the figure that guides her analyses, Lev Kenaan also explores and interprets multiple ancient and modern works, including the myth of Anteaus, Virgil’s First Eclogue and Aeneid, book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogeny, and Artemidorus’ Oneriocritica alongside Hegel’s “On Classical Studies,” Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Foucault’s History of Sexuality to name just a few of the key works that comprise the warp and weft of her book.

The Ancient Unconscious is a book unlike any other that I have read—and not because I do not work in Classics, though thankfully our panelists do, even if Bennett Simon self-identifies as an “amateur” (in the root sense of the word, as he says). Indeed, what I find unique about Lev Kenaan’s book is not simply her thesis that the psychoanalytic concept of the “unconscious” has important implications for interpreting ancient texts. Rather, what I find original is the way in which she develops and deploys a hermeneutic on the basis of her rearticulation of the unconscious that challenges the hard and fast distinctions we draw between the ancient and modern, dead and living, familiar and strange, here and there, and relatedly, the disciplinary boundaries that often define our study. The Ancient Unconscious provides numerous avenues of reflection and application for scholars working within and across a diversity of disciplines, including Classical Studies, psychoanalytic theory and practice, modern philosophy, religious studies, and comparative literature to name just a few.

The following symposium reflects the ways in which The Ancient Unconscious unlocks disciplinary gates and serves as a point of departure beyond the constraints of the book’s explicit subject matter, thus demonstrating one of Lev Kenaan’s main points that meaning occurs belatedly (Freud’s Nachträglichkeit or “deferred action”). As Richard Armstrong additionally remarks, “Who knows where the past really is, but what we read changes us, as it draws us into conversations we did not start and cannot end.” Each panelist evokes this sentiment in different ways, either by building upon some of the central themes of the Ancient Unconscious and reflecting on their relevance to other fields or topics, such as film or theology, or by demonstrating how the work of memory and our relationship to the past is dynamic, multidimensional, and wrought with desire.

Emma Scioli focuses on one of the key methodological problems that the “unconscious” evokes; that is, if the unconscious (or the past) is technically absent from consciousness (the present), how or where can we catch sight of its revelation? Scioli turns her attention to Orpheus’ katabasis or descent to the underworld and his wife Eurydice’s “thwarted return to the living.” Their visual encounter defines, for Scioli, the contact between the past/dead and present/living that belongs to the realm of Lev Kenaan’s theory of the unconscious. Scioli then analyzes visual analogues of the katabasis in modern film, including Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972) and Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954)—both of which evoke the unconscious emerging in the realm of consciousness in different ways.

Bennett Simon’s essay literally puts into play Lev Kenaan’s hermeneutic insight that meaning becomes “manifest over time and space.” Instead of exploring a single theme or idea of the book, Simon applies Lev Kenaan’s hermeneutic strategies to a case study. Rich in memories and associations, Simon’s essay provides a “psychoanalytically informed explication” of a previously unidentified text, a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry that he subsequently identified and for which he was awarded a tie at a 1993 conference on “Psychiatric Consequences of Ethnic Warfare.” Simon then closes with a self-analysis that culminates in a surprise—a forgotten/repressed memory—made possible by reading The Ancient Unconscious and writing his response.

The final two panelists, Kyle Khellaf and Richard Armstrong, both focus on Classical Studies’ resistance to anachronism (and more specially, psychoanalysis), but from two different perspectives. Khellaf probes the philosophical genealogy of philology, wondering if the “unconscious acceptance of Hegel as a central model in classical studies” has led to a “conscious rejection of Freud.” Khellaf then imagines how Classical Studies might have looked had the discipline followed a Kantian lineage, leading to contemporary philosophical approaches, especially the Deleuzo-Guatarrian historicization of the Oedipus complex as a “byproduct of capitalist forces on the nuclear family.” Khellaf then questions Lev Kenaan’s emphasis on the Classical canon: why Oedipus?

Riffing on the title of Freud’s 1930 book, translated in English as Civilization and Its Discontents, Richard Armstrong’s essay “Anachronism and Its Discontents: Philology and Its Others,” offers a boisterous and poetic account of the history and consequences of the “strangely abstinent ethos of modern philology.” By tracking philology’s early modern development alongside the printing press, eventual “liberation from Christianity,” and secularization in the Enlightenment, Armstrong aligns philology’s objectification of the past with the commodification of desire. Armstrong’s essay thus suggests that philology’s resistance to psychoanalysis, described both as a Jewish science and religion, has everything to do with the discipline’s “liberated secular embarrassment.”

I hope it is apparent that the Ancient Unconscious is a book that reaches beyond itself and stirs new pathways for thought and practice. It is therefore with great pleasure that I introduce this symposium, including the aforementioned essays and Lev Kenaan’s responses. Echoing Armstrong, I look forward to the “conversations we did not start and cannot end.”

  1. I want to emphasize so-called “discovery” in quotation marks because as Lev Kenaan argues, “antiquity provided premodern markers for the future development of the modern unconscious” (9–10). Also, the notion of the unconscious she develops suggests the past is never fully separable from its future such that the past, too, has a role in its future “discovery,” as it were. Lev Kenaan consistently argues against a positivistic account of the unconscious as an “object” that is locatable in the experiences of individuals or protagonists.

Emma Scioli


Endurance and Evanescence

Encountering the Unconscious at Pompeii

Although Vered Lev Kenaan does not feature Orpheus in her work, the image of the Thracian poet appeared and lingered in my imagination as I read her words. In particular, I thought of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld and his wife Eurydice’s thwarted return to the world of the living. Orpheus’ journey from the underworld is, of course, defined by its disruption and altered by the poet’s fatal backward glance at his dead wife, a visual encounter that forces her to recede from his sight rather than continue the journey with him from the realm of the dead. The fleeting encounter between Orpheus and Eurydice is evocatively captured in a sculpted relief from the late fifth century BCE, extant in several Roman copies (see image 1).

Image 1. Sculpted marble relief. 5th c. BCE, Roman copy, Naples Archaeological Museum.

Following the standard interpretation that the relief represents the moment when Hermes in his role as psychopompos (or “soul-guide”) reclaims Eurydice from Orpheus for her return to the underworld, this image depicts the point at which living and dead are temporarily united through confrontation. The sculptor of the relief places Eurydice in the center of the image; she is the visual hinge between the dead, represented by Hermes, on the viewer’s left, and Orpheus, on the right, representing the living. Hermes pulls Eurydice by the wrist in one direction while Orpheus beckons with bent arm in the opposite direction, as Eurydice herself temporarily hovers between death and life.

It is this image that simultaneously marks a reunion and a separation, a pause that defines the moment at which forward motion stops and receding motion beings, that became for me a visual icon for several of Lev Kenaan’s central points as I read her illuminating work. In my reading, the experience of Orpheus and Eurydice provides a nexus point for two facets of Lev Kenaan’s discussion: the bidirectional experience of the katabasis, the visit to the underworld, and the “contact between times” that belongs to the “sphere of the unconscious” (6). It is the intersection of these two ideas that I would like to focus on in my response.

In her section entitled “The Past: Buried and Unburied,” Lev Kenaan suggests that the encounter between the conscious and the unconscious necessitates the obliteration of the unconscious, rather than its preservation, for the unconscious is by nature “unchangeable” (38–39). In a footnote to her discussion, Lev Kenaan suggests the analogy of a scene from Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, in which a team of engineers exposes the rooms of an ancient Roman house during their excavation of the tunnels for the Roman subway system; within minutes of their exposure to light, the frescoes adorning the walls of the house begin to fade from view to the amazement and horror of the onlookers (40n8). The scene can be viewed below. 1

Fellini’s iconic scene brings to life Freud’s use of the metaphor of archaeological excavation for the “moment of exposure when the past is recognized in the present” during the encounter with the unconscious, and thus creates in the reader’s mind a helpful visual illustration of this psychological process, in particular, “the stage in which she (the subject) recognizes the links between her conscious and unconscious experience” (40). When applying this dynamic to Fellini’s scene, the faces in the frescoes represent the dead, who, like Eurydice, experience a temporary return from the past to the present, only to fade from existence when exposed for too long to the breath and light of the living. In this sense, they also represent the unconscious, which “dissolves” upon contact with the realm of the conscious (40). It is helpful to think of the subway excavation scene in Roma in terms of its larger context within the film. The scene is the culmination of a visit by a German film crew to the excavation site for the tunnel, with an Italian engineer as their guide. We can read the entire scene as a katabasis. 2

Lev Kenaan’s formal discussion of the katabasis comes in her analysis of Homeric digression, where she compares the two as follows: “Using the journey to the land of the dead as a metaphor, digression takes the form of a walk back from the present to the past, and yet one which induces, at the same time, the reverse movement, in which the temporarily awakened dead return from the past to the present” (105). The katabasis, in her discussion, is a metaphor for the way memory operates in the context of the scene between Odysseus and his nurse as she washes his feet in book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey in which the origin story of Odysseus’ scar serves as a digression from the central narrative. Beyond this specific example and in light of the broader scope of Lev Kenaan’s work, I suggest that the idea of katabasis is productive for thinking specifically about the journey that enables the unconscious to emerge into the realm of the conscious. The metaphor of archaeological excavation trades upon a notion of a journey between the earth’s surface and its underworld, in which the present tunnels down to excavate and expose the layers of the past. Thus Fellini’s scene is additionally useful for linking Lev Kenaan’s ideas about the encounter with the unconscious with the idea of katabasis.

While the fictional fading frescoes of subterranean Rome in Roma demonstrate the evanescence of the past at the moment of encounter with the present and are thus potent symbols for the metaphor of archaeological excavation for the exposure of the unconscious to the conscious, Freud was particularly interested in the excavated site of Pompeii (not Rome) as “a present that allows the past to appear” (42). I would thus like to introduce for comparison another cinematic parallel for the irruption of the past into the present through the process of archaeological excavation, this time at the very site of Pompeii, which for Freud was so iconic. Engaging with two sections of Lev Kenaan’s work in particular, “Facing Ancient Experience” and “The Past: Buried and Unburied,” I turn my attention now to an excavation scene in Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Journey to Italy, an important predecessor to Fellini’s Roma. This scene, like its counterpart in Roma, intertwines archaeological excavation and the encounter with artifacts from the past in a manner that evokes the katabasis.

Journey to Italy tells the story of a married couple, Alex and Katherine Joyce, who travel from England to Naples in order to sell a property left to them by a family member. Once they have arrived, the film tracks the disintegration of their marriage through their separate explorations within their new environment. Towards the end of the film, Alex suggests to Katherine that they divorce. Moments later the pair is called away to the ancient site of Pompeii by their friend and guide in order to witness a remarkable technological feat. The couple momentarily puts aside their personal crisis to follow him. Their journey to the site of Pompeii can be read as a katabasis, as it is a journey of the living to the land where the dead are entombed. But in this scene, we do not see a descent that reveals preserved just artifacts, but rather it is the dead themselves that emerge into the world of the living. This scene is viewable below. 3

As their guide explains, the couple will witness the process of “plaster casting” the cavities that have been left by the disintegrated bodies of ancient Pompeiians who perished during the city’s destruction. He urges the couple to come see “a man at the moment he was surprised by death.” This description foreshadows the imminent reactions of Katherine and Alex, who will be similarly surprised by the plaster corpses as they emerge, materializing as a stark reminder of death. Bodies that have had no substance for two thousand years, as their guide comments, become material entities through the technology of the plaster casts. In this scene, long-dead victims of Pompeii’s destruction emerge from their burial chamber to shock the inhabitants of the world of the living with the incongruity of their presence. But despite their obvious strangeness, the film makes it clear by Katherine’s reaction that the ancient couple bears a relation to the modern one, as the entangled bodies of the native lovers reflect and distort the estrangement of the foreign tourists. This could be read as the pivotal moment in which the subject recognizes the link between unconscious and conscious experience. In the transformative journey of these bodies from underground to surface, from void to matter, their state of evanescence is converted to one of endurance. Like the frescoes in Roma, these bodies were obliterated by exposure to heat and other elements that they could not withstand prior to, rather than as a result of, their encounter with the living; unlike the frescoes, these bodies are made into objects on their journey to enable engagement with those who inhabit the present.

Sandro Bernardi describes Rossellini’s film as a journey to a world in which “life and death embrace in a continuous exchange,”4 and this embrace is nowhere more prominent than in the scene with the casts at Pompeii. Like double Orpheus figures, Alex and Katherine come face to face with their counterpart Eurydices: the bodies of a couple being excavated from the ruins. Even though Alex and Katherine have descended into the “underworld” of Pompeii, the appearance of the casts that creates an encounter between the living and the dead can be read as a kind of reverse katabasis: at the moments when the casts emerge, the underworld intrudes upon the world of the living. This is precisely the “bidirectionality” that Lev Kenaan suggests as defining both the katabasis and also the path of the unconscious (105).

In her introduction, Lev Kenaan describes the difficulty of translating the unconscious from the past to the present as follows: “It can be translated from the past to the present only on the condition that it could have been restored as an experience in the first place” (15). The unconscious is an “unrecoverable absence,” according to Lev Kenaan (15). This transformation from essence to embodiment in Rossellini’s scene suggests a solution to the frustration of “unrecoverable absence” by giving absence a physical presence. The bodies themselves, immaterial and irrecoverable, are, through the casting process, given material form that allows them to be recovered and recognized by those engaged in their reception. The formation of the casts suggests the process by which not only the past, but the experience of the past (“a man surprised at the moment of death”), gains embodiment, is transmitted, and thus made available to the subjective response of those in the present. Rather than fading from sight at the moment of subjective engagement, the casts allow for subjective engagement with the past to endure.

Both Roma and Journey to Italy present their characters’ fleeting encounters with long-buried objects as confrontations that result from irruptions of the past into the present. In both cases, revelation of the object involves a moment of mirroring, in which object and viewer behold one another across the narrowed chasm of time and space. But in the case of Rossellini’s film, technology that allows movement towards the light and air allows the past to be comprehended and the alienation of present from past is temporarily suspended, while in Fellini’s film, technology that admits light and air into the burial chamber erases the possibility for comprehension, and alienation is restored.

These scenes can be considered in light of Lev Kenaan’s discussion of Freud’s idea of the unconscious as susceptible to change by the dynamic conscious, and his use of the metaphor of excavation at Pompeii to illustrate this process. While the scene from Roma showcases the impossibility of preserving the unconscious once it is exposed to conscious thought, the scene from Journey to Italy illustrates another dimension of the encounter, namely the formation of the physical artifact from the absence that characterizes the unconscious. The emergence of the casts and the identification of the living viewers with the newly-formed artifacts as they appear illustrates the moment of subjective identification with the ancient text that is so key to Lev Kenaan’s understanding of the ancient unconscious. Rather than emerging from the past as artifacts, the casts in their making draw attention to the translation of past to present as a dynamic process that both transforms and renders antiquity accessible to modernity and the unconscious accessible to the conscious.

In her inspiring work, Vered Lev Kenaan encourages us to think of the recovery of the ancient unconscious as a process directly related to the reception of antiquity in the modern world. While Fellini’s scene of the frescoes expresses a unidirectional approach from modernity to antiquity that results in destruction, Rossellini’s scene shows us a bidirectionality: Katherine and Alex travel to an ancient site, but their ancient counterparts simultaneously “travel” upwards from the past and from their burial places to meet the living. The unconscious is revealed as though rising to meet the realm of the conscious, enabled by transformation, rather than simply waiting to be exposed, and thus destroyed in the moment of encounter. It is this image that sticks indelibly in my mind, alongside that of Orpheus and Eurydice captured in a moment of bidirectionality. Both images bring to life for me the central concerns of Lev Kenaan’s book: the interplay among past and present, ancient and modern, the unconscious and the conscious during the encounter between the dead and the living, when evanescence and endurance coexist at the moment of reception.

  1. Roma, directed by Federico Fellini (1972; Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

  2. Walter Foreman, “Fellini’s Cinematic City: Roma and Myths of Foundation,” Forum Italicum, 14 (1980), 78–98. Foreman has interpreted Fellini’s Roma in light of foundation myths that follow the movement of city founders as they approach the site of their future city. He traces the concentric movement of the film from outside (80).

  3. Journey to Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini. (1954; Criterion Collection, 2013), DVD.

  4. Sandro Bernardi, “Rossellini’s Landscapes: Nature, Myth, History,” in Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real, ed. David Forgacs et al. (London: British Film Institute, 2000), 58.

  • Vered Lev Kenaan

    Vered Lev Kenaan


    Response to Emma Scioli

    Emma Scioli’s response to my book refers the reader to two metaphors of descent central to The Ancient Unconscious. These metaphors introduce two interrelated senses of the investigation of the unconscious: the archeological and the poetic. What lies beneath the earth incites both archeologist and poet. The former uses an archeological site to restore a dead world, while the latter fashions the world of the dead as a topographical region in order to open it for special visitors in time and space. In the history of psychoanalysis these imaginal locations were crucial for forging the unconscious as a deep and remote zone. To be influenced by poetry and archeology in imagining the psychic realm of the unconscious was to see it as an underground prison or storehouse of hidden thoughts and repressed experiences. This image of the unconscious as inaccessible and invisible grew from a poetic conception of the subterranean site as a psychological region, a concretization which paves the way to an ontology of the unconscious. Ancient poets imagined the depth and the edges of earth as a psychological region, the habitat of divine entities such as instincts, desires, anxieties, and forgotten memories. The poet of cosmogenesis, Hesiod, articulates the unique essence of these divine creatures by connecting them with the realm of the goddess Nyx, who presides over chthonic darkness and the nocturnal domain. The Hesiodic architecture of the dwellings of night, her “terrible houses,” relegates these divine creatures to “the limits of the dark earth” inside “a great chasm, whose bottom one could not reach in a whole long year.” (And how much longer even than this is the journey of a psychoanalysis!)

    The goddess of night is the parent of psychological abstractions related to hidden thoughts, latent intentions, and concealed passions. She is also the mother of death, sleep, and of dreams. In the mythological imagination, this nocturnal realm is located where the murky Tartarus holds the Titans in chains, the same place where Hades and Persephone preside over the kingdom of the dead. Like these infernal and inactive dwellers of night, metaphors of archeological objects suggest a lifeless dimension that can be translated into psychological terminology. In a conversation with the Rat Man, Freud turns the latter’s attention to the collection of archeological objects in his room and observes: “Everything conscious was subject to a process of wearing-away, while what was unconscious was relatively unchangeable” (Freud, SE 10:176). Freud’s understanding that buried psychological content is unchangeable removes it from temporal progression. The unchangeable is timeless, it is not subject to processes of development and deterioration. The preserved condition of objects buried in the underground derives from their separation from the dynamic and changing aspects of life on earth. This divide is particularly emphasized by the Homeric death/life dichotomy, of which Odysseus’ dead mother sadly reflects: “It is hard for the living to see these things, for in the middle space between the dead and the living there are great rivers and terrible streams” (Od 11, 156–57).

    While the mythology of the underworld is important for how the topography of the Freudian unconscious was shaped, I wanted in The Ancient Unconscious to turn away from the psychological discourse that treats the unconscious as a container of dead and static material. An alternative insight into the unconscious realm is provided by the encounter with the underworld; here we see it as a complex two-way movement: downwards and upwards. The Homeric poetry provides an excellent example of this duality. The Odyssey presents a vague picture of the encounter with the dead, conflating necromantic and katabatic paradigms of interaction with the deceased. At the entrance to the underworld the souls of the dead are summoned upwards to meet the living, but the encounter also requires a katabatic movement downward. Odysseus notices Achilles approaching him. Recognizing Odysseus, the shade of Achilles asks how Odysseus dared to descend to Hades (XI 465–75). The living watches the dead walking towards him, while the dead perceives the visitor’s movement as a descent. Is this life-and-death encounter an example of a temporal junction between two opposite perspectives, of the afterlife and the living? How can this mythical junction be translated psychoanalytically?

    In the book, I argue that the encounter with the unconscious can never be one directional. Upwards and downwards go hand in hand with a movement in time: forward and backward. I am grateful to Emma, who reflects in her discussion on this insight by examining visual moments of the discovery of the unconscious and thereby showing why these scenes are inevitably tied to a bidirectional movement of time. But before turning to Scioli’s response, let me stress the importance of time to my study of the unconscious. The phrase, “unconscious experience,” is an oxymoronic figure. When something is unconscious it is not directly experienced. Traces of the unconscious are revealed only in retrospect. The unconscious is not part of the phenomenal field of immediacy. It does not appear in the here and now. The unconscious’s inception of meaning can only occur beyond the narrow confines of a “now.” It is an experience whose now is inseparable from the temporal domain of the no longer here. The psychoanalytical structure of après-coup is therefore fruitful for conceptualizing the return of the ancient unconscious in the modern present.

    The Ancient Unconscious provides a psychological prism through which past experience unfolds as a temporal complexity typical of the textuality of dreams. In many dreams, “a harking back to older psychical structures” is inseparable from dream thoughts that render the futurity of the present apparent (Freud, ID, SE 5:548). Looking backwards is a gesture that launches a past present into a future. How is it possible to comprehend such a complicated movement of time? Dreams provide the visual arena where such experiences are made visible. Take for example one of Freud’s dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, ID SE 4:238). In the brief account of his dream, he describes himself as going upstairs from a flat on the ground floor to a higher floor, when suddenly he sees a maidservant coming down the stairs, or rather (as he experiences it), coming towards him. In the dream, the movement of climbing upstairs is inseparable from going downstairs. Although in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud focuses rather on the sexual meaning of the symbol of the stairs, the typical dream of climbing upstairs is, in my view, primarily a dream about time. The dream stages temporal complexity by making the ascent to the upper floor intersect with the inverse movement of coming downstairs. This bidirectional movement connects the present of the middle-aged Freud (the dreamer) with a childhood experience represented by the descending dream-figure, whose movement is also towards him. Thus, the return of a past experience in the dreamer’s present is a temporal movement embracing the paradox of “forwards is backwards.”

    Grounded in her study of ancient dreams and their affiliation with visual art in antiquity, Scioli’s contribution to my theory of the ancient unconscious elaborates on its visuality.1 Her response deals with visual expressions of the temporal complexity of the unconscious. She examines three enigmatic moments that demonstrate how the dialectic of forward and backward is translated into visual language. Orpheus’s descent into the underworld provides her with a paradigmatic myth, presenting the dual movement of backward and forward through the encounter between the living and the dead. This ambiguous movement dominates the relief of Orpheus and Eurydice from the Naples Archaeological Museum. The scene leaves the viewer undecided whether Euridice is moving forward towards Orpheus in his futile attempt to bring her up to the world of the living or moving backwards, with Hermes, down to Hades. Considering the affinity of literary descriptions of the underworld with dream experience, the conflation between forward and backward in this visual example is unmistakable. Moreover, the ambiguity between the two spatial directions takes on temporal significance once we consider the uncertainty surfacing in the iconographic analysis of the visual scene. Does it describe the moment of the first separation from Euridice upon her death? Does it describe the brief moment when Orpheus wins Euridice back after successfully charming Persephone with his music in the underworld? Or does the scene portray the moment in which Orpheus loses Euridice a second time after transgressing Persephone’s law of not looking backwards? Clearly, linear and chronological narratives cannot contain all these possible interpretations at one and the same time, especially as each of them pertains to a different stage in the mythic plot. However, narratives that embrace dream poetics are especially receptive to temporal ambiguities.

    The temporal incoherence of the Orpheus and Euridice relief becomes more complicated when we evoke an earlier experience from the biography of the couple, which emerges once we compare the relief with a contemporaneous relief from the fifth century BCE. Comparing the united/separated Orpheus and Euridice with the portrayal of a different married couple discloses a new temporal layer underlying the infernal scene. The relief of the divine marriage from the National Museum in Palermo shows Zeus and Hera at the moment of their union in marriage.

    As Orpheus with his right hand both touches Euridice’s veil and holds her left hand, the portrayal of their final separation simultaneously reenacts the event of their marriage; these gestures are identical with the ceremonial conventions of marriage evoked by the analogous sculpture of the marriage of Zeus and Hera. It is at the moment of their ultimate separation in the underworld, that the dreamlike possibility of a return to a past experience takes shape. Orpheus’s movement downwards pushes past memories to the fore. This inverse movement charges the separation scene with ambiguity. The relief ties the final death of Euridice with the preceding event of her temporary unification with Orpheus in the underworld, which itself brings up the memory of their matrimonial union on earth.

    The unconscious speaks to us through a web of times, here producing a statement on the mythic collocation of marriage and death. How this temporal juxtaposition should be interpreted is another story; but a potentially fascinating way to find the traces of this old unconscious juxtaposition in modern texts is hinted at by Scioli’s choice of cinematic episodes from Fellini’s Roma and Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, which seem to convey similar collocations.



    1. Emma Scioli, Dream, Fantasy, and Visual Art in Roman Elegy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015).

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong


      Body casts and suffering in style.

      I appreciate Emma’s efficient use of two film segments to illustrate her points, particularly the segment on the figures from Pompeii. The body casts of Pompeii are “sensational” in that they became powerful counterweights to the stasis of the Winckelmannian sculptural ideal (“noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”), but they also allow us to concretize, visualize the hollow vacuities of the site, creating something out of a not-nothing, but an impression in the fine volcanic dust left by a decaying body. These are unnerving figures, not careful compositions like the Laocoon group or the Dying Gaul, but likenesses of people caught in the horrific intimacy of death, their arms upraised in the “pugilistic pose” from the sheer nerve damage of pyroclastic heat. What they embody, and elicit, is trauma.

      The bitemporality Vered mentions is certainly implicated in the nature of trauma. If “unconscious experience” is an oxymoron, so well might be “traumatic experience,” in that it remains unbounded, untotalizable, even unnarratable, locking its victim into repetition, dissociation, in sum, a haunting. While it’s true Freud struggled with an adequate model for trauma, I don’t think we need to see his adoption of Oedipal myth as a total evasion of it (as some have argued, claiming the Oedipus complex is a dodge to avoid the reality of child molestation). In the course of Oedipus Tyrannus, the “experience” of patricide and incest only arrives through interpretation. When Oedipus is looking for his mother at the end and demanding a sword (OT 1255), he has finally put together that the woman who bore him and gave him away to die is also the one who has made him an incestuous pariah. However the trauma of his infantile experience might be connected to his obsession over parentage, the true horror he experiences now is a collision/collapse of temporalities: the past he thought he knew is gone, a new past has emerged that destroys his present and future. I’ve always thought it very clever that Sophocles has Jocasta figure out all this before him. Does she kill herself out of shame and guilt, or rather, in her one act of maternal love, to spare Oedipus the final crime of matricide?

      I sometimes think there is more of a future in our field if we think of antiquity more in terms of traumatic solidarity than the celebration of ideals. We cannot realistically claim to “know their world,” but we can be attuned to their response to suffering. And with tragedy, they certainly suffered in style.

    • Bennett Simon

      Bennett Simon


      Response to Emma Scioli and Vered Lev Kenaan

      Emma’s essay is elegant and moving and a pleasure to read and watch! Two cinematic models of retrieving, reconstructing the past, and presenting the interplay between the present dynamics of the search and the searchers interlacecd with “recapturing” or revivifying the buried past. The Orpheus and Eurydice story, a katabasis and “kata-strophe” as suitable for partially capturing the as yet unsolved mysteries of how, when, where, who and why we continually do “recherche du temps perdu.” Vered’s reply amplifies her arguments in the book about the “locations” of the ancient unconscious,–dark, dangerous and distant lands or underworlds, where the dead, the lost, the horrific the menacing and the unexpected dwell.

      I here briefly point out how psychoanalysis and broader areas of psychological research has struggled and often battled about “buried memories.” Are they discovered? recovered? invented? constructed with heavy influences by the dynamics of the situation in which they are “recovered?” co-constructed? Do they come through the  gate of horn or of ivory? falsifiable? verifiable? and so forth.Fascinating questions and we keep learning more, including dialogues such as in Emma’s essay and Vered’s reply.

      These make me rethink an essay I wrote with Joseph Russo (Arion, spring/summer 2017) “Gambling with Demeter,” about a folktale in Herodotus about a pharaoh who descends to the underworld alive, plays dice with Demeter, wins some, loses some, gets rewarded by her, and ascends alive. The story as a whole involves deceit, contests of wit, enigmas, and compromise with the fact that our knowledge and predictions are imperfect and subject to all kinds of intrusions and the unforeseen. Perhaps a model also dealing with how we never ever fully retrieve and rediscover the repressed, denied, and forcibly obliterated past.

      Thank you, Emma and Vered (and Emma B. as well)



    • Emma Scioli

      Emma Scioli


      Bidirectionality of time and space

      I am thankful for Vered’s generous response to my piece. As is the case in every conversation I have with Vered, I come away feeling enriched by our exchange. I particularly appreciate that she replied to my chosen visual image with an image of her own. I love Vered’s’ idea about the Orpheus relief evoking the iconography of the Greek wedding ceremony, an identification that further complicates the ambiguous moment of the scene represented. The similarity between the gestures of Orpheus and Zeus in their respective reliefs as each extends his right hand towards the shoulder and veil of his bride, suggests that the artist of the Orpheus relief meant to evoke the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, and thus their past, in rendering the present moment as he does in the relief, thus overlaying a moment of ambiguous spatiality with an ambiguous temporality.

      In studying both reliefs, I am struck by the role of touch in the union of husband and wife. In the Palermo frieze, showing the wedding of Zeus and Hera, Zeus’ gesture with his hand grasping Hera’s wrist seems almost proprietary (a gesture that is echoed at the bottom of the relief by the placement of his left foot almost on top of her left foot, holding her in place lest she dare to step up to his platform). In the Orpheus relief, however, the more fluid dynamic among Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes suggests their simultaneous backward and forward movement. This dynamic is also mirrored in their interconnected web of touches. Vered’s response reminds us that in her reading of the unconscious, “upwards and downwards go hand-in-hand with a movement in time.” In the bidirectional world of the unconscious, the spatial and the temporal are always intertwined, like the hands of Hermes, Eurydice, and Orpheus in the Naples relief. Or like the entwined bodies that emerge through the transformative process of creating a plaster cast in Journey to Italy. The intimate embrace of the plaster couple inverts the dynamic of their living counterparts, the estranged Alex and Katherine Joyce, who had just been discussing divorce before being whisked to Pompeii to witness this necromantic act. To be sure, the gesture of the ancient Pompeiian couple certainly represents a moment in the Joyces’ past, prior to their estrangement. It is this encounter with the past – their own and that of a human couple 2000 years old – that causes Katherine to flee the site in distress. Yet this encounter with the past also foreshadows a moment in the couple’s near future. After leaving Pompeii, the couple drives into a small town where their car is stopped by a crowd fervently celebrating a religious event. Unable to move forward or backward, Alex and Katherine abandon their car, temporarily lose sight of one another amidst the swirl and press of the crowd, and ultimately fling themselves into an embrace in the film’s final moments. In this case, the collocation of marriage and death brought about by the bidirectional encounter ends with a (perhaps temporary) reunion of husband and wife rather than their eternal separation.

Bennett Simon


The Long Reach of the Ancient Unconscious

A Case Study

This essay takes off from a footnote early in Vered Lev Kenaan’s book,

One source of philological ambivalence towards psychoanalysis lies, in my view, in a confusion often made between psychoanalytic practice and psychoanalytic hermeneutics. There is, accordingly, a need to differentiate between the role of the unconscious in shaping narratives of self-disclosure, the products of analytic sessions, and the role of the unconscious as a principle of exegesis. The latter is the present study’s main concern. (23n38)

Lev Kenaan indirectly exemplifies psychoanalytic hermeneutics in analyzing Oedipus Rex and psychoanalytic practice in analyzing dreams. As a professional psychoanalyst and amateur literary psychoanalytic hermeneutist, I’ve long been involved in writing and teaching about tragic drama—ancient, Shakespearean, and modern, with psychoanalytic perspectives. I want to illustrate the two modes with an example drawn from my life.

My vignette involves my identifying and explicating a seemingly hitherto unidentified text. I first present a very condensed version of a psychoanalytically informed explication of a text, paying particular attention to some themes important in Lev Kenaan’s book. I next present a psychoanalytic exploration of my reactions around this text that involved unconsciously driven “symptoms.” The analyst, the patient, and the literary-artistic-psychoanalytic interpreter are the same person. The text is a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry and the story it represents. The clinical piece is a self-analysis—extending from 1993 to the present and crystallized by reading The Ancient Unconscious and preparing this essay.

In 1993, during the awful war engulfing much of the former Yugoslavia, I was a participant in a conference on “Psychiatric Consequences of Ethnic Warfare” at the Woodrow Wilson International School for Scholars in Washington, DC. During his welcoming comments, the director pointed to a somewhat faded tapestry hanging in the meeting room. He said there would be a prize for identifying the tapestry scene—a bearded man being slain by an armored warrior and horrified women looking on, hitherto unidentified by anyone of or coming to the center. Oddly, no one had consulted the Smithsonian loaners of the tapestry. It seemed familiar, its violent content resonated with the subject of the conference, but no recognition. Throughout the day, I remained puzzled.

Then, two colleagues presented a videotaped interview with a Bosnian refugee survivor of Serbian aggression, part of the Stephen Spielberg Holocaust archive at Yale University. The man was describing atrocities he’d witnessed in the course of the conflict: Serbian forces, military and paramilitary, had no regard for civilians, killing women, children, not even respecting old age. “Old age” was the trigger for a cascade of thoughts, memories, associations, and an experience of instant recognition: the scene was at the fall of Troy, with Pyrrhus/Neoptolemus, the avenging son of Achilles, killing aged king Priam at the altar and a horrified Hecuba.

I then flashed on the Players scene in Hamlet where Hamlet asks a player to recite a speech about the slaying of Priam, a graphic speech which Hamlet begins to recite, and the player continues.1 The speech drew upon Vergil’s Aeneid 2 and other Classical sources available to Elizabethan playwrights. I’d just been teaching Hamlet in an undergraduate fall semester course. Already a mycelium was forming of the tapestry’s historical-cultural-literary heritage, my personal history, my several roles as an interpreter, and millennia of political history—ancient Greek, Roman, sixteenth- to seventeenth-century Western Europe, World War II, the subsequent struggle to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and the ongoing atrocities in parts of the former Yugoslavia.

My Analysis of This Scene and Story of the Trojan War

I have not attempted here to “psychoanalyze” the content or characters of the Trojan tales so much as to complement Lev Kenaan’s formulation of an “ancient unconscious.” The “full meaning” of the text does not become apparent only at one point in time, but rather built into a poetic text are multiple possible construals and constructions becoming manifest over time and space. This tale has numerous iterations from early Homeric and non-Homeric epic sources, through fifth-century tragedy, vase-paintings, Vergil’s Aeneid 2, medieval versions, Shakespeare (especially Hamlet, The Rape of Lucrece—an ekphrasis), 17th century tapestries, and various subsequent tellings. Each version already refers to previous temporal and historical layers, e.g., the epic sources are referring to “events” many centuries earlier, and simultaneously reverberate with contemporary conditions, especially of war and violence (this tapestry was possibly created during the Thirty Years’ War). Versions also reflect a future time, the Homeric, “a tale for men in times to come.”

There is thus a “telescoping,” a crafted anachronism, as it were. Each iteration represents something latent in previous versions, which are “pregnant” with meanings yet to be unfolded, a futura (as Lev Kenaan elaborates Auerbach’s Mimesis and Freud’s Nachträglichkeit). Each iteration also “begets” new possibilities of different and sometimes contradictory identifications—who the aggressor is, who the victim is, as well as contradictory interpretations, such as the costs of war in a society valorizing military might. (“Ares the money changer—urns with ashes in exchange for live young men,” Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 437–55).

Another recurrent tension is that of telling/not telling tales of “pity and terror,” how much a narrator can bear to tell or not tell and how much audiences desire and are fearful of hearing: Aeneas begins with “infandum” and then yields to “incipiam.” In sum, the literary, dramatic, and visual artistic potential of these “epic” tales allows both for articulation, expression, and “putting into words,” powerful currents of feeling and response to lived situations of the audience, as a collective and as individuals, and simultaneously allows for distancing and relief of distress for that audience. Taking all these dimensions into account, I suggest that the manifest text of the poetic work already provides something of its own psychoanalysis.

My Self-Analysis

The Riddle of the Sphinx, or, Oedipus Rex Redux. I proceed in this somewhat free-associational discourse as though my symptom, or presenting problem, was my delay in recognition. My associations span the years roughly from age seven or so to the present with considerable “telescoping,” and I’m not able to neatly dissect what I thought and when about the tapestry on the day of the meeting and in the ensuing days and years until this writing. Sometime during the meeting, perhaps at the moment of the Bosnian man’s interview citing the Serbians not even respecting old age, there came to me a verse of a stirring song from my teenage years in a Zionist youth organization—about rescuing survivors of the Holocaust whom the British Mandate authorities were forbidding to enter Palestine: “You may lean on my arm, o you old one” [sav zakain], Even for such [an aged] person, you [the British, the Arabs] have barred the gate, and a day shall come or vengeance and payment.” These words encapsulate the organizing theme, as I now see it, of my associations: that of a “rescue fantasy,” in which I am cast as some kind of heroic helper, rescuer, savior, and thereby gaining recognition, love, appreciation, and victory over adults and peers that hitherto had been denied me. Also, there is an element of competitively and comparatively besting peers or adults who were not able to effect what I could. Clearly, this fantasy/daydream was consolatory and soothing but also spurred ambition and the direction of my labors, including my choice of profession.

A connected memory begins for me on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, age eight. WWII was pivotal for me: war games with friends, heroic enactments, maps, worship of relatives in the military, anguish and exaltation, were daily fare. The fate of Jews in Europe and the postwar story of the creation of Israel continued with heroic rescuing themes and beginnings of action in Zionist youth organizations. This included fundraising on New York subways (illegal) and plotting with friends on smuggling ourselves into Palestine to fight, as was actually done by several of our leaders.

In home life, my father faltering in business in the later Depression years, was now a hero working in an aircraft factory. Meanwhile my mother’s struggles with self-esteem often excluded me from efforts to “rescue” her. My maternal grandmother was suffering with painful cancer and my paternal grandmother became demented, conditions from which I could not rescue them. In my middle teenage years, my later professional commitment as psychiatrist and psychoanalyst began to crystallize. Overlapping with interests in the poetry of war, whether Homer (beginning Greek in high school) or the World War I British poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (see his poem on a poison gas attack, which exemplified “that old lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”).

In college, pursuing pre-med studies, after exposure to Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, I majored in “Greek and Hebrew,” and became a kind of psychoanalytic Classics warrior, especially tangling with a classmate who dismissed my interests. Also, other forms of political activism and protest crystallized, a bit dormant in medical school, but resurfacing in years of psychiatric and psychoanalytic training, especially around nuclear war issues and the Vietnam War.

Fast-forward to 1988 together with my wife, I became very involved with studying and organizing around the impact of war and communal violence on children, and we took a sabbatical year in Israel teaching and starting projects on “Children and War.” In brief, the person who arrived at the conference that day at the Woodrow Wilson center was a psychoanalyst, an amateur but deeply committed Classicist, and “warrior” for the rights and needs of children caught in armed conflict. That person also brought with him ongoing conflicts around real and alleged deficiencies in each of those parts of his person: as a psychoanalyst, I was not being with my patients that day; as a Classicist, I was not just an amateur, but an intruder, and not rigorously trained; as a “warrior,” I was more of a student, a writer, and organizer of others around issues of children in war, but not on the front lines, working day-by-day with children caught in armed conflict. So, conflicts around my credentials, conscious and unconscious, as it were, contributed to a delay in recognition. Indeed, a satisfying interpretation.

But something was not quite right, something nagged at me. As I got further into writing this essay, I needed to do some “messy files archeology” and search for the newsletter of the Woodrow Wilson Center; finally found in the equivalent of Middle Bronze III of my files was the article discussing my deciphering the tapestry. But folded into the newsletter was an August 1993 letter from the director thanking me for my contribution, asking if I was wearing the center tie, the prize, but acknowledging, in effect, that at long last he had consulted the curators at the Smithsonian who identified the tapestry as Flemish, ca.1625. “They also have their version of the subject, which I am told has to do with the death of Saint Peter! I am trying to get a copy and if successful will send it to you.” So, unconsciously I was waiting for, but not wanting that letter refuting my solution of my private Riddle of the Sphinx. I had gradually erased the knowledge of my error and remained content with my interpretation! For writing this essay, I then looked up St. Peter the Martyr and learned that St. Peter Martyr was killed in 1252 in Como, Italy, and that, embroiled in some bitter controversies in the church, he was killed by his enemies. My seeing the scene as Priam and Hecuba was a plausible first guess/impression; my interpretation had much merit but was wrong! Donning a more scrupulous art-history hat, I would have pursued a more authoritative opinion, and donning a more scrupulous psychoanalytic hat, I would have stopped and asked myself if perhaps I did not really know for sure if this was the slaying of Priam. To borrow and paraphrase a quotation from Nietzsche that was cited by Freud: “Memory says yes, pride says it cannot have been, memory yields.” Proper atonement: Try and correct the record in the center’s archives, but not return the twenty-seven-year-old tie!

  1. Hamlet, 2.2.426–98.

  • Vered Lev Kenaan

    Vered Lev Kenaan


    Response to Bennett Simon

    Thank you, Bennett, for your response to my book, addressing the book’s hermeneutic strategies, its methodology, by putting them into actual play. I am delighted to see how The Ancient Unconscious stimulated you, how it has become a prism for a personal reflection on the textuality of the unconscious. In this reflection, the Oedipus riddle becomes a riddle of textuality, which belongs to the heart of everydayness. This is indeed a central theme in my book: The dynamics of the unconscious shows itself in consciousness as spontaneous textual weaving, a creation of textiles—made out of half-forgotten events and literary and personal memories—and this woven creation invites exploration and ongoing interpretation. And what a wonderful surprise it was to read this personal essay of yours, that reminded me of Freud’s A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, the focus of the third chapter of The Ancient Unconscious. Your essay stages two surprising moments, pertaining to its two distinct narratives: a linear plot, and a retrospective, conglomerated plot which piles up different associations.

    The first surprise awaits the reader at the end of the essay. The story you have thus far told is about a riddle, which you were able to solve twenty-seven years before; for solving that riddle you were awarded with a prize. The beginning of the story is marked by a mixture of curiosity and ambition to solve the riddle, leading to an intensive process of guesswork, culminating in the successful identification of the enigmatic scene on a fading seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry. This is the point where the story could have come to an end. The wonderful success of deciphering a pictorial enigma with the help of textual analogies was pleasing and reassuring. This even involved some public recognition, which added some glamor to the accomplishment. But then an afterword came out of the blue. A few months after the riddle was solved, a letter arrived (it was 1993, a real letter folded in a sealed envelope, waiting at the mailbox). The letter contained a polite message informing you that the identification of the tapestry had been refuted by an art historian who proposed a different narrative for the tapestry. The ruin of the solution comes as a surprise and functions as a turning point in the story.

    The story, though, consists of another plot, moving or rather swirling in a dynamic flow of associations intertwining memories from different moments in your life, together with literary episodes from the Agamemnon, Aeneid, and Hamlet, historical flashbacks and cultural symbols. This is the material from which the narrative of self-analysis is made. The retrospective plot mainly relies on linking recollections and associations. The self-analysis comes to a halt, however, as the narrator, the psychoanalyst-patient, rediscovers the old letter. When he finds the letter, to reread it twenty-seven years after the event, a second surprise awaits us. The message of the letter does not seem dated, but rather strikes its reader as if for the first time. It is the return of an erased memory that surprises us this second time.

    The effect of surprise belongs to the unconscious. Surprise is a common gesture of the unconscious, whose business-as-usual is interventions, violations of rules, and temporal transgressions. With surprise, the unconscious catches us off guard. We may recall the violent and military connotations of “surprise,” deriving from the Old French surpendre: to seize, attack, or overtake. The astonishing effect produced by the unconscious involves an encounter with something old disguised as new. Isn’t this also the meaning of the ancient riddle which Oedipus faces as he approaches the gates of Thebes? “Who is it who walks on the earth with two legs (dipous), and also four (tetrapous), has one voice, but also has three legs (tripous), and of all creatures on earth is the only one who changes?” The Sphinx repeats the word pous, thus sounding out the essential syllable of Oedi(pus)’ name, but Oedipus doesn’t hear it. The familiar sound-syllable of his name has no particular meaning for him, and evokes nothing personal; the significance of the sound remains sealed, perhaps denied. It seems that the role of pous in the riddle of the Sphinx has a double meaning: it conjures Oedipus’ name, and at the same time stands as a painful remainder of his scarred feet. The young Oedipus misses these senses of the riddle and offers his solution to the riddle: Man! This moment is captured by Nietzsche as a deceitful rendezvous of questions and exclamations:

    The will to truth which will still tempt us to many a venture, that famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect—what questions has this will to truth not laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! That is a long story even now—and yet it seems as if it had scarcely begun. Is it any wonder that we should finally become suspicious, lose patience, and turn away impatiently? That we should finally learn from this Sphinx to ask questions, too? Who is it really that puts questions to us here? What in us really wants “truth”? Indeed we came to a long halt at the question about the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete stop before a still more basic question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance? (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil sec. 1)

    Displaying the fading tapestry to a group of psychiatrists, the director of the institute posed a question: What is depicted on the tapestry? The question demanded only one answer, and a true one. It happened to be the killing of St. Peter the Martyr. And yet what if we, following Nietzsche’s advice, cling rather to untruth, uncertainty, even ignorance? What if we attend to the anachronic flow of associations binding traumatic experiences of the Holocaust with the violence of the Bosnian and Serbian wars, childhood memories, and learned-by-heart passages from Virgil and Shakespeare? We then get, I think, access to the dynamic meaning of the tapestry. In Oedipus Rex, the search for truth is a search for underlying unity. But the surprising effect of the Sphinx’s riddle is the understanding that ambiguity is the inner core of meaning. In what sense do a crawling baby and an old man leaning on a cane coexist as one? Is there a unity underlying the different temporal phases of life? Or is the human being a temporal plurality, unyielding to unification, and constantly overwriting itself?

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong


      Monsters and Martyrs

      Vered, I love your response to Bennett’s wonderful rumination, particularly the end about the ambiguity of the riddle. If there is not a unity to the underlying temporal phases of life, then the Anthropos might end up just being a composite creature, a disjointed aggregate of temporal phases loosely imbricated in sequence and only somewhat interconnected through memory and narrative; in sum, a sphinx, a fabulous creature that only exists in human folklore, whose monstrosity seems to threaten us very directly. By asserting an answer to the deadly riddle, man, we have the empowering fiction in Oedipus to dispel the hybridity and disaggregation with which the mythical Sphinx threatens us in its form. But then Oedipus walks from that “victory” straight into the trap of his own contradictions: he is, and is not, a native of Thebes; he is, and is not, the heir to the throne of Laius; he is, and is not, the savior of Thebes; etc. And in the end, he is the very monster he seeks.

      Bennett, as always your response made me wish we simply had more time to chat. But I was immediately struck by the identification of the tapestry as depicting the murder of Saint Peter of Verona. Your description of it, “a bearded man being slain by an armored warrior and horrified women looking on,” doesn’t track at all with the iconography of the saint. He was in his mid-forties when he was assassinated and was killed in a deliberately lonely spot on the road back to Milan—nobody looking on but his companion Domenico. His standard iconography shows him with an ax or a falchion sticking in his head, and often he is depicted writing the first words of the Apostle’s Creed in his own blood. So either your memory completely remolded the visual scene on the tapestry, or the Smithsonian people are way off the mark. Could be it be, I wonder, that the former Zionist in you repressed the identification because Peter of Verona was a papal Inquisitor, murdered by Catharist “heretics”? How did your eyes not see he was clearly in a friar’s robes, those of the Dominican order, the Domini canes or “hounds of God” who pursued all manner of unorthodox thinkers? How did you not see the axe in his tonsured head? And what subversive maker of tapestries in Flanders would not include the angels in heaven looking on in wonder at this martyrdom? I doubt you would have missed these telltale clues of Christian iconography. This martyrdom led to the fastest canonization in history as well as the papal bull ad extirpanda, which authorized torture by the Inquisition. So the depiction of this murder was red meat for papal propaganda—and is accordingly not known to be subtle.

      Therefore, Bennett, I think you can keep that tie. Or you can in turn ask me why I rush to defend the judgment of my senior colleague? What deferred obedience or savior fantasy lies in me?

    • Bennett Simon

      Bennett Simon


      Response to Lev Kenaan’s and Armstrong’s Comments

      Dear Vered,

      Thank you for your generous and amplifying response. “Surprise” and “enigma” seem to be the avenues that are at the center of your response. The etymology of surprise is quite helpful, given that surprise is sometimes a welcome visitor, but often quite the contrary, and sometimes mixed. Fortunate is she or he that can respond to some  unwelcome surprises with a bit of humor–the American humorist Ambrose Bierece is reputed to have said, The problem with self-awareness is that it’s mostly bad news! Yes, in so far as the unconscious is a place, it is a place where the most”surprising” combinations of people and scenes take pace, accordingly a source of distress, puzzlement, and sometimes creativity–naturally, Tragedy has tragic surprises, ancient and modern, and Comedy has what turn out to be comic surprises. Enigma and ambiguity–and the problem of how to accept both the uncertainty and the yearning for unity and grounding. Your suggestion is, as I see it, “keep an open mind, because it an ongoing process” (see also Richard’s reply). Recently having re-read The Brothers Karamazov, in the interview between Ivan and the Devil, the Devil says on earth you have geometry; where I, the Devil, lives, we have only indeterminate equations” And with such being the state of things, the mix of geometric certainty and indeterminate equations, we live, and with luck, and pluck, we can sometimes thrive.

      Yes, Oedipus Rex and the surrounding mythic variants convey much of this, plus also invoking issues of moral responsibility  (as played put more in Oedipus at Colonus, Where Oedipus says, “I was the aitios, but I am not aitios!)

      Thank you for reminding me about your detailed discussion of Freud’s Acropolis experience.

      So thank you for expanding on your previous expansions.



      Richard, briefly, thank you for your letter rich in detailed knowledge, useful insight about unification, and a defense of a senior colleague! All are welcome. I have only  a faded picture of the faded tapestry, but no dogs and on the side are horrified women (or at least one woman). I will try and look for  examples of the iconography you describe (a good source?). Clearly St. Peter of Verona was a man who took a stand and clearly he made enemies! I haven’t had a chance to track down a Smithsonian person (the tapestry is apparently back there now) who might have some more detailed knowledge. But one point of your response is that facts are indeed important, and the quest worthwhile.

      Followup with the Wilson Center, I finally was lucky and somebody answered the phone who knew what I was talking about, remembered the tapestry, and remembered the Director—a senior person from the old regime. Since those years, they’re in a new building, there is a new Pharaoh that knew not Joseph, and ,if I read between the lines of her part of the conversation, a yearning for the old building and library, the old director, and perhaps an atmosphere in which such issues, and such conferences, were  taking place (my inference, not direct quotation).

      So, thank you for your good response, your warm wishes, and let’s continue the dialogue


    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong


      More on Saint Peter of Verona and “A Disturance of Memory”


      You can see the basics on St. Peter’s iconography here,, where it is mentioned he is rarely depicted without a weapon or gash in his head. As St. Augustine claimed, even after the bodily resurrection the saints will still bear the marks of their glorious martyrdom (ew!). But, he insists, there will be no deformity in it!

      Vered mentions Freud’s essay/letter to Romain Rolland, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,” and there’s an interesting detail I’ve been thinking about lately. Freud quotes a few lines from an old Spanish ballad, which he claims are about Boabdil, the last king of Granada, but they in fact about his father, the previous king. One can just point out the error, which is of course the joy of pedantry, but Vered, I think, would rather have us look to Freud’s unconscious identification with Boabdil, el rey chico, last of his kind. While it is certainly relevant to the letter’s argument to note how, with Freud’s misidentification, he is displacing a father with a son rather tellingly (and in advance of his own conclusion about his guilt on the acropolis being about surpassing his father), it is especially important to note that Freud quotes the lines in Spanish, the language of his escapist fantasies during his youth, when he and Eduard Silberstein would write to each other in a preposterous Spanish they learned from some primer without dictionary or instructor. Reading those ridiculous letters, one senses the power of Freud’s youthful fantasy and desire to escape the narrow confines of his life, which reinforces what he says in the letter to Rolland about travel and wish fulfillment. So in that complex moment of sad reflection, when Freud at 79 reflects on an experience he had at 48, we can see him reaching well beyond the mature tourist on the acropolis to the boy in Leopoldstadt, who, by an interesting coincidence, was born with such a tussle of black hair that his mother called him “a little Moor.” Sorry if this is too compressed a line of thought, but I am writing this in an essay of sorts for Vered, so hopefully you can read the fuller account soon.


    • Bennett Simon

      Bennett Simon


      response to Richard on Freud’s mistake

      Dear Richard,
      Thank you for this detail of Freud’s mistaken identification of the king in ballad, an interesting example, I would guess, of Freud’s conflict not fully resolved (whatever that might mean–“Old conflicts never die, they just fade away”??)-writing the essay is part of Freud’s ongoing process of resolving the conflict, and the conflict may have different iterations over a lifetime. At one juncture, the conflict might be an obstacle to Freud’s writing the essay; at a later point, its manifestation might be this slip, but not a larger inhibition in writing.
      I look forward to your longer essay. Again, to be continued!

Kyle Khellaf


Do Philologists Dream of Oedipus Rex?

Yet, in framing antiquity as an inaccessible domain, Freud exposed classical philology to its own insecurities. (Lev Kenaan, 14)

The moderns too have a foreign nature. Like the ancient Greeks, they succeeded in repressing it by molding a modified, idealized, self-image that has become their second self. (Lev Kenaan, 63)

In which direction does the classical unconscious lead? Backward, to the fragmentary ruins of antiquity awaiting reconstruction? Or forward, towards its future iterations, as heralded by the ancient world’s dreamscapes loaded with potentiality? In The Ancient Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and the Ancient Text, Vered Lev Kenaan maps out a bidirectional approach. In so doing, she takes us much further than such a dialectic would seem to imply, often in ways that generate striking insights into both the ancient and modern worlds: “We can say to begin with that we are looking for a radical change of perspective, one that would allow us to see that the passage of time is not a barrier to the interpretation of the ancient text so much as the condition and grounds of it” (30). By framing her study of the unconscious as a series of questions pertaining to relational temporality and untimeliness, she illustrates how our persistent instincts toward delimiting the horizons of our ancient texts—repressing them, so to speak—keep us from a deeper, more nuanced understanding of both antiquity and the philological methods that shape our inquiries.

Much like the unconscious itself, the initial premise that “the Egyptian-Roman transmission of the story of Oedipus testifies to the continuity of the Greek past in the present” (2) masks a much deeper exploration that gets at the very heart of classical alterity and the dialectic of modernity and antiquity. On the one hand, The Ancient Unconscious is a cultural history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century classical philology during the emergence of psychoanalytic theory—spanning from Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jacob Burckhardt, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Hans-Georg Gadamer, E. R. Dodds, and numerous later interlocutors. On the other hand, the monograph offers a series of textual “analyses” that include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Homer’s Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, Virgil’s Eclogues and Aeneid, and Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica. Through these transtemporal exchanges, Lev Kenaan shows us how Father Chronos is always at the mercy of our maternally-charged psyche that leaves him continually exposed, from the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron’s classical landscapes to the Theban crossroads that constitute our own hermeneutic blind spots.

The Ancient Unconscious opens with the discovery of the Oedipus fresco at Tuna el-Gebel, Egypt, in 1934—uncanny not merely as another instance of colonial ideological reception, but also, as Lev Kenaan notes, the very same year Freud first completed a draft of Moses and Monotheism. Extending this nonlinear transtemporality to the fresco’s triptych, Lev Kenaan, like the Sphinx herself (that primordial Freudian analyst), awakens in us an awareness of our own inescapable position as Oedipal subjects as we gaze upon the tripartite visual narrative. By reading the images from left to right (as we Westerners would be inclined to do), we soon realize that we are already engaging in the very same anachronism deployed in “Sophocles’ play as well as . . . Freud’s retrospective psychoanalytic plot” (5):

The visual experience of the Oedipus fresco resists continuity. . . . Understanding the meaning of textuality through contact between times, historical moments that disown any priority under the law of chronology. (4/6)

However, should we instead choose to view the fresco’s three scenes “concomitantly,” we not only glimpse “an intersection of different times,” but also the “visual possibility in which being unconscious and gaining consciousness coalesce” (5).

This hermeneutic strategy gets further unraveled in chapter 1 (“The Ancient Unconscious? Towards a Methodology”). Therein, Lev Kenaan underscores the untimely, much-contested legacy of psychoanalysis as a model for understanding our own relationship with antiquity, yet one that is still highly relevant, not only for classical studies, but also for the humanities more generally. For classics in particular, this remains an ongoing problematic. Employing the words of Nicole Loraux, whose scholarship as part of the Paris School played a vital role in inaugurating new theoretical methodologies for the study of antiquity, Lev Kenaan writes, “The threat of anachronism, ‘the capital sin against method,’ can thus partly explain why, deep down, practitioners of modern classical philology are antagonistic towards psychoanalysis” (11).1

Lev Kenaan, however, makes “the capital sin against method” the guiding principle of her work:

This option . . . seeks to rearticulate the Freudian unconscious as a dynamic principle of textual meaning and, specifically, as a paradigm of a text’s essence as unfolding, in time, through readings and misreadings, through a constant fusion of horizons that give birth to the “classical text.” (7)

It is in this chapter that she draws upon Gadamer’s Truth and Method, specifically his notion of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung), in order to fully embrace the idea of untimeliness as an inexorable element in the study of antiquity.2 In fact, it would be perfectly correct to push for such a methodology even if the focus of her monograph were entirely literary. The study of classical receptions, although occasionally contested as a form of “anachronistic philology,” has slowly gained acceptance for showing how our relationship with antiquity is always-already premised upon several millennia of estrangements, temporal removes, and misreadings. That Lev Kenaan embraces this so resolutely and with such precise clarity, while nevertheless accounting for the many different local histories of the (post)classical text, is undoubtedly the finest achievement of The Ancient Unconscious.

In terms of anachronistic estrangement, one of the main highlights of Lev Kenaan’s monograph is the rich cultural history of the reemergence of the “classical unconscious” that she lays out in chapter 2 (“Hegel’s Antiquity: Far Away, So Close”) and chapter 3 (“Freud on the Acropolis”). Any reader, whether scholar or layperson, seeking to understand the complex relationship between antiquity and modernity would do well to begin their exploration of the topic with these two extremely illuminating chapters. In the first, Lev Kenaan shows us the lasting influence of German idealism (and Romanticism) on the development of modern classical philology. Having already begun this exposé in chapter 1 with a discussion of von Humboldt’s “goal of recovering the richness of the lived experience, the Erlebnis, of the ancients”—which, in von Humboldt’s own words, “attempts to restore and preserve [monuments] as purely and faithfully as possible, and seeks to use them for obtaining reliable knowledge of antiquity” (15)3—in chapter 2 Lev Kenaan builds on these through a series of Hegelian lenses which shaped the latter’s understanding of antiquity (especially his 1809 Nuremburg Gymnasium speech “On Classical Studies”).4 These include alienation; the privileging of Antaeus (as opposed to Heracles) and his link to the primordial, maternal earth; German unification and nationalism (with Greece as a model for its adolescent form); nostos (i.e., the “return” home); Heimatlichkeit (the sense of being at home); and belatedness.5

Much of this is summed up in Lev Kenaan’s appraisal, “Hegel wants the modern student to recognize in the classical texts a perfect form that could become integral to the modern human spirit,” through which “antiquity cradles the modern experience of the unconscious” (60). I myself was quite impressed with Lev Kenaan’s reading of Hegel’s analogy of golden fruit in a silver bowl for antiquity. For she places especial emphasis on his idea of “the multiplicity of their destinies” (48), wherein the fruit preserves the seeds of the ancient unconscious for later generations of interpreters seeking it as a model for their classical receptions. Such a generative reading certainly complicates my own view of Hegelian idealism (more on this below), which saw in Hegel a greater weight bestowed upon the richness of the imagery (gold and silver) and its ready-picked, still-life, reflective outer form that has long served as a lure to classicists unconsciously seeking self-fulfillment through antiquity.

Not surprisingly, Freud complicates matters. Inasmuch as we see some areas of thematic overlap with Hegel, especially the persistent question of Heimatlichkeit, with Freud this shifts more to concerns about derealization, self-alienation, and estrangement. As Lev Kenaan points out, Freud’s merging of the conscious and unconscious on the Acropolis was deeply linked to feelings of melancholia that were tied to the awakening of childhood memories—namely the inability to reconnect with his mother and an ambivalent relationship with his father. The resulting inability to relive such moments inspired both a negation and a disavowal of the existence of antiquity (72–80). Especially salient in these analyses are the discussions of Freud’s experiences as a Galician Jew for whom—unlike Hegel, von Humboldt, and Winkelmann (another interlocutor included in this chapter)—the idealism of the Grand Tour would not have offered the same wholly positive affirmations of German autochthony.

Moreover, Lev Kenaan judiciously shows how this identity issue is further complicated by Freud’s allusion (seemingly an unconscious intertextual cathexis) to Virgil’s first Eclogue and its central theme of dispossession which emerges in the dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus:

Meliboeus’ flight from his fatherland is a fact; yet its reality is strangely negated, as Tityrus’ hyperbolic adynaton shows. Exile, uprooted people, and forced migrations are for him only imaginative possibilities that remain impossible in Tityrus’ real world.” (85)

As I read through this section, I kept wondering about the intrusion of Augustan Rome onto Freud’s visit to the Athenian Acropolis (another noteworthy transcultural estrangement), until Lev Kenaan finally addressed it at the end of the chapter (88–89). In fact, this guided form of self-realization of key themes, which were only belatedly confirmed as I, the reader on my couch, became the analysand within the many layers of text I was analyzing, was a highly effective strategy that continued throughout the monograph.

These examinations of Hegelian philology and Freudian archaeology raise an even broader possibility concerning their respective legacies in classical hermeneutics. By this I mean both the unconscious acceptance of Hegel as a central model in classical studies and the conscious resistance within that same field to Freud (although even with Freud, as Lev Kenaan shows, the unconscious still plays a major role). From a historical perspective, we should ask just how much more (than we consciously affirm) did Hegelian Geist, and the resulting ability to locate and simultaneously identify with the internal essence found in something foreign (that is, the an sich in das Ding), influence the longstanding classical ideal that studying the classics serves not only as an act of self-reflection, but also as a means of self-edification.

Such a supposition begs an additional counterfactual: just how different would the history of philology look had it followed a Kantian rather than a Hegelian turn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? If earlier classicists had pursued a more experiential, transcendental framework—one based on the not so far-fetched idea that the scholar of antiquities is only able to discern limited, selective fragments of passed down representations, and that their actual essences (the ancient things in themselves) remain largely foreclosed—would classics have embraced Freud’s theories of the unconscious more readily, rather than disputing them so fiercely? Would classical reception studies have taken root much earlier than their sudden rediscovery only at the tail end of the twentieth century? I think the answer is yes, although there is no way to ever prove this beyond the hypothetical. Nevertheless, a number of recently utilized theoretical methodologies in classical studies owe their formation at least in part to Kantian notions of a priori intuition, the unique experiences of self-consciousness, and the categories these generate (whether conscious or not). They include Lacanian structural analysis, Deleuzo-Guattarian territorializations of the subject, object-oriented ontologies, and even identity-based theories (including postcolonial, subaltern, feminist, and LGBTQ, to name only a few).

The last three chapters of The Ancient Unconscious shift their primary locus from Hegelian and Freudian modernity to the vestiges of extant classical texts. Although I do not have room to delve as deeply as I would like into these highly illuminating chapters (and so I hope other symposium participants will do so more extensively than I have), I would nevertheless like to discuss a few general criticisms which these chapters brought to my attention. For they lend themselves well to a Syndicate discussion informed by a desire to delve more deeply into some issues that I felt were given less attention in The Ancient Unconscious than I believe they merit. Nevertheless, none of these should in any way be seen as casting doubt on the immense success of Lev Kenaan’s remarkable study.

First, I wish that slightly more space had been devoted to the discussions of Virgil’s works that mostly took the form of chapter epilogues. In particular, Aeneas’ paternal and political encounters in the Virgilian underworld would have offered a useful memory-dream corollary to the Odyssean “digressive katabasis” at the heart of chapter 4. I myself hoped to hear more about how the hero’s descent into the underworld, like the analysand’s descent into the unconscious, affords some of the strongest connections between not only past and present, as Lev Kenaan herself suggests, but also past and future:

Like katabasis, digression is a bidirectional movement in time. Using the journey to the land of the dead as a metaphor, digression takes the form of a walk back from the present to the past, and yet one which induces, at the same time, the reverse movement in which the temporarily awakened dead return from the past to the present. . . . As such, its ultimate object, the encounter between the living and the dead, reveals the very essence of digression, which is to connect the present and the past. (105–6)6

In this respect, I was surprised that Lev Kenaan chose not to mention “the twin gates of Sleep” in the Aeneid (6.893), in particular the longstanding debate over the significance of Anchises leading his son Aeneas to depart from the underworld through the Ivory gate (through which “the Spirits of the Dead send false dreams to the upper world,” 6.896), since this seems to offer a powerful metaphor for unconscious cathexis. Furthermore, there was significant opportunity to discuss the trans-temporal dynamic of memory-as-prophecy and its prominent role in the political incarnations of the underworld in the Aeneid, most notably the parade of Roman heroes (6.756–892). For the connection to unconscious ideology becomes especially evident when we juxtapose this Virgilian passage with Etienne Balibar’s work on ideological memory, fantasy, and nationalism in his essay “The Nation Form.”7

Insofar as the Odyssey is concerned, the bridging of past, present, and future through the “unconscious underworld” (if I can use the term) is quite prominent during the failed nostos stories told by figures such as Achilles and Agamemnon in Odyssey 11, which link the foreclosed Iliadic past with uncertainties about Odysseus’ eventual return to Ithaca. Likewise, the awakening of the hero on the shores of Phaeacia in Odyssey 6 (which Lev Kenaan incisively links with the trauma flashback during the scar ekphrasis scene in bk. 19) is what leads to the encounter with Nausicaa and her escorting Odysseus to the court of Alcinous (itself a kind of dreamlike, intermediary location). This, in turn, culminates in the further awakening of repressed memories during the songs of Demodocus (bk. 8) that generate the narratives of trauma and suffering which Odysseus himself relates over multiple books (bks. 9–12). Furthermore, it is here that we glimpse the full range of monstrous, primordial, and sublime dreamscapes, including the violent Cyclops and Laestrygonians, instantiations of divinities such as Aeolus, and even the bewitchings of Circe and the Sirens (the latter given clear intertextual associations with the Muses, including earlier memories of the Trojan War, 12.181–91).8 In sum, these cathected sequences offer some of our broadest vantages onto additional timescapes within the larger epic cycle.

However, a more significant question arose when I reflected upon the monograph’s almost unwavering focus on canonical authors like Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil (Artemidorus being perhaps the sole exception). Was the ancient unconscious truly limited to the canon when it came to its mythical manifestations in memory or dream form (and its expression only manifest in works such as the Oedipus Rex, the Odyssey, the Eclogues, the Aeneid, and even Hamlet and the book of Genesis)? Or was this rather the historical byproduct of Freud’s privileging of the Oedipus complex (in a manner not so different from the earlier German idealists)? And would it be worthwhile to consider subsequent challenges to this model by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (not only their joint historicizing of the emergence of the Oedipus complex as a byproduct of capitalist forces on the nuclear family in the early modern era, but also Guattari’s attempt to decouple the unconscious from a structured linguistic framework that privileges the symbolic canon)?9

In reading Lev Kenaan’s extremely nuanced analyses at the historical, philological, and theoretical levels, I don’t think she would be opposed to such interrogations. Thus, I only ask given that the topic of the canonical versus noncanonical unconscious was something that was never explicitly discussed in a work that places so much emphasis on the ancient unconscious as a fundamental bridge between the ancient texts and their postclassical receptions. In chapters 4–6, I was often left wondering whose complexes I was experiencing in such dream-induced cathexes of memory and their subsequent repressions (unlike in chs. 1–3, where it was much more apparent that I was witnessing those of von Humboldt, Hegel, and Freud). Those of Odysseus and Oedipus themselves? Artemidorus’ or those of his later readers? Augustine’s? Freud’s? Erich Auerbach’s? Jean-Pierre Vernant’s? For this was certainly a parade of heroes. Yet I find it hard to believe that the ancients (and also their modern interlocutors) went to bed every night only to dream of Oedipus, or that Oedipus only found his way into the unconscious of philological giants.

Antiquity is certainly a complex entity. The brilliance of Lev Kenaan’s work is to show us that it is also, as the result of various competing influences on classical philology and their accompanying ideological complexes, an extraordinarily protean assemblage. And that any attempt to separate these closely interwoven histories, or to isolate the one from the other, is largely to reduce ourselves to an Oedipal state of agnoia (“ignorance”). At best, we actually end up unknowingly killing father Chronos through our unconscious drives to keep all things classical in their idealized places. This is itself not a wholly dreadful proposition given that anachronistic misreadings do continually shape the classical tradition and offer new, unexpected insights into the ancient world. At worst, however, our philological instincts lead us to tread too cautiously in our acts of zētēma (the “search for truth”).10 And so we sleep unawares with our maternally-induced desires to avoid such a violent patricidal reading in the first place, proclaim ourselves king of a Thebes whose millennia of layered histories have fundamentally altered its original state, and seek in vain to wall off antiquity from modernity, even as our own unconscious ideologies seep in and continually reshape those ancient vestiges. Lev Kenaan masterfully shows us that as surveyors of antiquity, we cannot ever truly separate our own lived, historical experiences from the ancient objects of our inquiries. By virtue of the unconscious and its innumerable dialectics, we continually reconstruct that philological ship of Theseus (or ship of Cadmus, we might say, land-locked Thebes be damned)—with each new reading, at every port of call on the postclassical horizon.

  1. Quoting N. Loraux (2002), The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, trans. C. Pache, with J. Fort (New York: Zone), 154.

  2. H.-G. Gadamer (1975), Truth and Method (New York: Continuum), 336–40.

  3. W. von Humboldt (1999), On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, trans. P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 155.

  4. G. W. F. Hegel (1961), “On Classical Studies,” in On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (New York: Harper).

  5. It should be noted that W. von Humboldt (1767–1835) was an almost exact contemporary of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831).

  6. In addition to other verbs of motion (often involving walking), it is worth noting that the verb katabainō and its nominal counterpart katabasis are frequently used to denote the act of digression in Greek literature, especially in the genre of historiography.

  7. E. Balibar (1991), “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” trans. C. Turner, in E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London and New York: Verso), 86–106.

  8. For a highly technical, philological discussion of this relationship, see P. Pucci (1979), “The Song of the Sirens,” Arethusa 12, 121–32.

  9. For the former, see G. Deleuze and F. Guattari (1983), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. R. Hurley et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press); for the latter, see F. Guattari (2016), Lines of Flight: For Another World of Possibilities, trans. A. Goffey (London and New York: Bloomsbury), especially the essays “The Unconscious Is Not Structured Like a Language,” 3–10; “Pragmatics, the Runt of Linguistics,” 115–39; and “Pragmatics: A Micropolitics of Linguistic Formations,” 141–75.

  10. I employ the terms agnoia and zētēma here since they constitute two of the three female personifications (alongside Thebes, but not counting the Sphinx) in the Tuna el-Gebel Oedipus fresco that Lev Kenaan discusses at the outset of her monograph.

  • Vered Lev Kenaan

    Vered Lev Kenaan


    Response to Kyle Khellaf

    Kyle Khellaf’s thoughtful response to The Ancient Unconscious emphasizes important affinities between my methodological articulation of the unconscious (as a textual principle) and poststructuralist/postcolonial theory, especially that of Deleuzian rhizomatic thought. As Kyle observes, my book, like these theoretical frameworks, challenges the symbolic canon. Reading him though, a big question mark hovered in the background: Why Oedipus? Or, more precisely, why Oedipus again? Haven’t we by now overcome the spell of this powerful myth? We know that the myth of Oedipus provided Freud with a model of subjectivity. Oedipus contributed to Freud’s deep insight into the unconscious mind and it was through his reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex that Freud made the first discoveries of the new discipline of psychoanalysis. Sharing these discoveries with his friend Wilhelm Fliess in the famous letter of October 15, 1897, Freud makes a connection between Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and his own forgotten childhood memories. The discovery of the unconscious depends on a general theory of analogy relating the ancients and the moderns. When Freud excitedly wrote to Fliess, “I have found, in my own case too, the phenomenon of being in love with my mother and jealous of my father,” he was announcing that his personal and theoretical discoveries are based on a cultural analogy, one that reconciles an ancient Greek myth with modern experience.

    The personal is again interwoven with universal formulations of the Oedipus story in a short text composed by Freud in 1914 for a collection celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Sperlgymnasium, where Freud studied between the ages of nine and seventeen (1865–1873). Freud is aware of a regression effect brought about by the school’s invitation: he automatically accepts, “like the old soldier who, at the word ‘Attention!’, cannot help dropping whatever he may have in his hands and finds his little fingers pressed along the seams of his trousers” (241). At the age of sixty, Freud is pleased to announce that he enjoys international fame (though he immediately qualifies his self-assertion by ironically remarking that it goes without saying that in his “own country” psychoanalysis has gained least traction (242). The child’s memories of school merge with the adult’s difficulties in coping with criticism at home. The Oedipus complex is suddenly revived in the writing of the piece. Freud experiences regression. Teachers, Freud explains, substitute for fathers. The childhood memory is of a pupil’s obedience with its conflicting emotions. Awakening the memory of his schoolboy submissiveness brings with it the concomitant aggressive reaction towards his teachers, and it is this recollection of a “contradictory attitude” that allows Freud to demonstrate for readers one of psychoanalysis’ most prominent concepts—ambivalence. He describes the ambivalent emotions of the child in relation first to his parents and later in life towards substitute figures; then the ancient myth pops up. Freud provides a popular version of the psychoanalyzed Oedipus, intended for the non-professional readers of the volume: “Of all the imagos of a childhood which, as a rule, is no longer remembered, none is more important for a youth or a man than that of his father. Organic necessity introduces into a man’s relation to his father an emotional ambivalence which we have found most strikingly expressed in the Greek myth of King Oedipus” (“Some Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology,” SE 13: 243).

    The figure of ancient Oedipus and its theoretical transformation into the modern complex dominated Freud’s thought throughout his career and beyond, through the immense impact of Freudianism worldwide. Today, however, Freud’s reminiscences are inseparable from their historical context. They are heard with an ear, for example, to the absence of girls in the gymnasium. In Austria, the first girls’ gymnasium was founded in 1892, and girls were admitted to boys’ gymnasia only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Freud, feminists concur, developed a theory which tells the psychic truth of a particular generation of men which reflects and strengthens patriarchal structures. Fanon, Irigaray, Cixous, Mitchell, Derrida, Vernant, to name just a few thinkers, all agree that Freud’s conceptualization of the Oedipus complex is culturally and historically loaded and that it is strongly embedded in the zeitgeist of the Viennese fin de siècle. Freud’s Oedipus is globally criticized on account of a universalism that is insensitive to cultural, ethnic, and gendered otherness. It is a universalism dreamed up in part as a palliative to the abjection of Jewish masculinity in turn of the century Vienna, an attempt to turn the tables on the Christian civilization which could not recognize Freud’s heterogeneous identity, which included a claim to the universal category of the human. This is one of the Jewish roots of psychoanalysis. There is a strong case for saying that Freud’s attempt to reclaim a universal identity passed the lack of recognition he experienced onto girls and women, problematized gay sexuality (and projected primitivity onto others far from the Viennese orbit). It is also true that by entering these waters, however problematically, Freud has been important for much feminist thought; an account of the psychosocial formation of gender and sexuality is central to his work; and recognition of the unconscious roots of subjectivity can be part of antiracist endeavor.

    In assessing the achievement of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault enthusiastically summarizes it as an antifascist philosophy. Published in 1972, Anti-Oedipus releases us, Foucault argues, from among other things the totalizing impact of the Oedipus structure; from its negative categories of the law of castration and blinding. Above all, it defies the endorsement by capitalist regimes of the worship of the individual. In their attack on Western pyramidal hierarchization, Deleuze and Guattari present Freud’s Oedipus as the pyramid’s imperialist symbol. They want us to jettison Freudian psychoanalysis, and replace it with new theoretical tools, which will demolish hackneyed structures of oedipalization. Their manifesto flags multiplicity, differences, nomadism, deterritorialization, acts of intervention, and a dialectic of juxtaposition and disjunction. Here is where I’d like to return to Kyle Khellaf’s Deleuzian call to problematize Oedipus. I think that the message of Anti-Oedipus should not be understood today as “forget Oedipus!” On the contrary, it implies a new kind of investigation of Oedipus. Once the Deleuzian tools have been put to work, Oedipus inevitably comes back into view. While the dismissal of the Oedipus complex from the heart of the family, society and political arena was revolutionary at the time (Anti-Oedipus is a product of the revolutionary 1960s), the ancient Oedipus today gains fresh meanings.

    In my view, the current focus on Oedipus should call attention to his heterogeneous origins. Oedipus should be studied today as a figure of multiplicity. He certainly shouldn’t be reduced to the paradigmatic “figure of the daddy-mommy-me triangle” (Deleuze and Guattari, 58).1 Oedipus is rather a figure in whom the names “father” and “mother” can be heard as differences. The son Oedipus is simultaneously connected to and disconnected from his parents. Furthermore, his heterogeneity derives from the fact that his identity is double. He has not one but two pairs of parents. He is both a biological and an adopted son. He is an exile, a fugitive, and a stranger as well as a native of Thebes. At the intersection, Oedipus become a figure of displacement. He is nowhere, out of place. His movement is simultaneously backwards and forwards, leaving home and returning to it in the same movement. It is this meaning of Oedipus that makes him a symbolic figure of the unconscious as I propose to understand it in my book. My interpretation of the unconscious is based on Oedipus’ nomadic experience, and through it we are able to give a ground for unconscious textuality.

    Considering the nomadic character of the unconscious, I turn now to answer Kyle’s question, “Was the ancient unconscious truly limited to the canon when it came to its mythical manifestations in memory or dream form?” My point in the book is that the dynamic character of the unconscious transgresses hierarchical definitions. It demonstrates that the site of the unconscious pertains to the intermediate textual zone existing between different texts separated temporally and culturally. In this sense, the nomadic character of the unconscious connects canonic and non-canonic text without distinction. Thus, for example, the dream that according to Jocasta is common in men, that of having intercourse with their mother, infiltrates Sophocles’ image of the road junction, and turns up as the modern dream of Karl Abraham’s patient, in which the Bolsheviks violate his mother’s grave at an intersection. (I discuss these textual links in chapter 6). The Ancient Unconscious proposes to use the unconscious as a principle of textuality that opens any text to constant reshaping and transformation. Texts, like dreams, point to the future, motivating the interpreter’s effort in the liminal space between two contradictory poles signified by the temporal coordinates of the prior and the now. Through the unconscious I wanted to articulate an element of movement (Freud and Derrida both associate this movement with that of the loom) that is responsible for hidden textual links.

    The unconscious movement (back and forth) introduces new senses into Freud’s Oedipal complex. And this brings me to the second question raised by Kyle Khellaf who wonders “whose complexes” my book discusses, inquiring further whether my analysis of the dreamwork reveals the unconscious of the ancient texts or of their modern readers. The book proposes to attend to the etymology of the “complex” with which Freud chose to coin his Oedipal discovery. I think that by attending to the Latin roots of “complex” we discover an important nuance. The Latin roots of “complex” lead us to the verb plectere meaning to interweave, and show that within the unconscious experience of both the ancient texts and their modern readers, the past and present are interwoven. The traces of the work of the ancient unconscious are left on the modern self, while the traces of a future are dreamt by the ancient through the fabric of the unconscious. The Oedipal complex primarily suggests, in my view, a cultural and temporal web in which ancients and moderns are interlocked.

    1. See Rachel Bowlby, “Family Mutations,” in Talking Walking: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic, 2018).

Richard Armstrong


July 1, 2021, 1:00 am

Vered Lev Kenaan


July 1, 2021, 1:00 am