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 While Oedipus of Sophocles’ play, whose “experience in the past cannot be withdrawn from his future” (33), is the figure that guides her analyses, Lev Kenaan also explores and interprets multiple ancient and modern works, including the myth of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.”
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.↩