On his only visit to Greece, in 1904, Sigmund Freud experienced
brief but unsettling feelings of alienation as he
stood on the Acropolis. Haunted by this experience,
Freud did not succeed in analyzing it to his own
satisfaction until 32 years after the event, in 1936.
In 1936 he wrote to his good friend Romain Rolland a letter, where he tried to self-analyze what happened to him back in 1904 on the Acropolis.
Freud had started to exchange letters with Romain Rolland since 1923. The French thinker influenced the father of modern psychoanalysis, to the extent that Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” was featured in the opening of Freud’s “Civilization and its discontents”.
Athens and the Acropolis were not in Freud’s travel plans in the summer of 1904. They(he was accompanied by his brother) were going to visit Corfu. However, while in Trieste, they were advised not to go to Corfu, but instead visit Athens and the Acropolis. Freud narrates:
“When, finally, on the afternoon of our arrival I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes upon the landscape, a surprising
thought suddenly entered my mind: ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learnt it at school!'”
“. . . the whole psychical situation, which seems so confused and is so difficult to describe, can be satisfactorily
cleared assuming that at the time I had (or might have had) a momentary feeling: ‘What I see here is not real.’
Such a feeling is known as ‘a feeling of derealization’ [‘Entremdungsgefuhl’ (literally, ‘a feeling of alienation’)].”
“I might that day on the Acropolis have said to my brother: ‘Do you still remember how, when we were young, we used day after
day to walk on the same streets on our way to school, and how every Sunday we used to go to the Prater or on some excursion we knew so well? And now, here we are in Athens, and standing on the Acropolis! We really have gone a long way!’
. . .
It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way: there was
something about it that was wrong, that from earliest times had been forbidden. . . .
It seems as though the essence of success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden. . . .
The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the son’s superiority. Our father had been in business, he had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have meant much to him. Thus what interfered with our enjoyment of the journey to Athens was a feeling of filial piety….”
“I was already a man of mature years [forty-eight] when I stood for the first time on the hill of the Acropolis of
Athens, between the temple ruins, looking out over the blue sea. A feeling of astonishment mingled with my
joy. . . . [M]y astonishment . . . has something to do with the special character of the place. ”
Freud might had the most sincere intention of self analyzing his response to the Acropolis, but his explanations appear to be rather cliche. A man who had deep and rounded knowledge of Ancient Greece and its culture, could not have stayed only at the father -son conflict. Quite obviously the conflict was much deeper and broader. And we will never know enough about it.
Following comments by Despoinarion and Manolis, I venture into an assumption for the further exploration of the issue. The assumption is that the feeling of acute alienation that Freud experienced on the Acropolis is somehow related to his “link” to “Athena”, the goddess.
From the catalog of “Sigmund Freud’s Collection“, I borrowed the following description on the Athena bronze statute that Freud owned since 1914.
Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, after a Greek original of the 5th
bronze, 12.5 x 4.5 x 3.8 cm
Collection Freud Museum London
Athena was Freud’s favourite work. When he bought Athena, sometime after 1914, he positioned her in pride of place at the centre of the antiquities on his desk. In 1938, when the Nazis invaded Vienna, Freud and his family prepared to fl ee. It seemed that Freud might lose his entire collection so he selected two works to be smuggled out, to
represent all the collection meant to him. One of those was Athena, the other a tiny Jade Screen (Qing Dynasty, 19th century, not in the exhibition).
Athena was restored to Freud in Paris, when he was en route to London. Princess Marie Bonaparte, Freud’s close friend and a psychoanalyst, had spirited the statue out of Vienna. When the Princess returned it to him, Freud said that he felt ‘proud and rich under the protection of Athene.’
Freud did not treat his artworks as sacrosanct. During the analysis of the American poet Hilda Doolittle,
known as H.D., he picked up Athena and handed it her. ‘This is my favourite’, he said. ‘She is perfect … only she has lost her spear.’
Athena is a masculine goddess. As the protector of Athens, the Parthenon was her temple. She was the daughter of Zeus, his favourite child, born fully formed from his head. She was a fi erce warrior who, with her enormous bronze-tipped spear, helped the Greeks fi ght the Trojans. When Perseus fought Medusa, the snake-haired
monster, Athena assisted, advising him to use her great shield like a mirror because those who gazed into Medusa’s eyes were turned to stone. On her breast, Athena wore Medusa’s image, an emblem of a vanquished force she had turned to her own advantage. Like most of the gods, she had a range of characteristics: in times of peace, she
was benevolent and inspiring, a patron of the arts and a wise, civilising influence.