I don’t know how many of you are aware of the Canongate Myths series of books, but if they’re not on your radar, they should be as they are pretty awesome. The editors of the series basically invite significant writers to come and ‘re-do’ a myth of their choice, which is completely in keeping with the dynamic nature of myth itself – the whole point of mythic stories was that they could be tweaked and varied and have new bits added to them and have bits taken away depending on what the story was needed for. (Hence why, for instance, so many different places claim to be the birthplace of assorted Greek heroes.) The most recent myth is A. S. Byatt’s retelling of the Ragnarok story, so myth isn’t being interpreted as being strictly ‘classical’; that said, one of the initial volumes was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which took on the Odyssey and turned it on its head to look at things through the eyes of Penelope and, in particular, the maids who Odysseus and Telemachus kill at the end of the poem.
The book I want to discuss in this post is Salley Vickers’ Where Three Roads Meet, which takes on the myth of Oedipus in a really interesting way. You can’t think of Oedipus these days without thinking of the Oedipus Complex, and thence to Doctor Freud – so Vickers grasps this inevitable nettle with both hands, and makes this a tale of Freud being told the Oedipus story by a ghostly figure, who ends up being the prophet Tiresias visiting him through a mysterious time/space travel thingummie. How the mechanics work aren’t important. What is important is the dialogue, the conversation between the two men. Vickers starts with a short precis of Freud’s life and the various crisis points that she wishes to emphasise, including various small and interesting details like Freud’s famous spearless Athena (paging Doctor Freud… oh, wait). Having set the stage, as it were, the main body of the novel takes the form of a series of dialogues, with the date of each dialogue noted at its beginning. The first takes place after the first operation Freud had for mouth cancer; the subsequent dialogues are dated when Freud has come to London and is gradually succumbing to ill health and the cancer that would eventually kill him.
What takes place is a gradual unfolding of Tiresias’ story, starting from his own childhood, giving him time at the shrine at Delphi where he developed his own mantic abilities with the Pythia, and thus placing him at the same spot where both Oedipus and Laius were given their fatal oracles. His journey from there to Thebes, and the fatal revelation of Oedipus’ identity, isn’t the end of the story; Tiresias goes on to recount the events of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, finishing with Oedipus’ passing out of this world, which neatly coincides with Freud’s own.
Of course, this isn’t just Tiresias in monologue – Freud opines, shares, delivers interpretations of the mental state of the characters… to which Tiresias tends to reply with “as you say, Doctor Freud”, which is quite marvellously dry – especially as Freud begins to lose his authoritative stance as the story (and his illness) progresses, and Tiresias becomes less… deferential, perhaps? The transition from Freud’s almost blustering confidence to a rather more introspective and contemplative stance is pretty convincing, as is Tiresias’ constant quiet persistance which eventually transmutes into the authoritative voice. I kind of wonder what this would be like read as a staged dialogue, but I think you’d lose a lot of the pleasure of envisioning these two totemic men by seeing them embodied before you.
So, themes of interest – firstly, this intersection between Rational Science (as embodied by Freud’s psychotherapy, despite the many ways in which it actually isn’t scientific at all) and Irrational Myth – which, nevertheless, is true. Tiresias’ presence is never questioned, nor is the validity of his account – he just is, and that in itself raises interesting questions about Freud’s own openness to this liminal place. The big question that Tiresias raises about the myth itself is what was going on in Jocasta’s head – did she know? Could she not put two and two together? How come she hadn’t mentioned the exposed infant before? Tiresias’ meditations are actually a really interesting set of reflections on some of the aspects of the Sophocles play that, perhaps, don’t seem to make sense, and also tie in with the psychological insights into human behaviour which psychoanalysis, allegedly, is all about. That is, I think Tiresias’ compassionate understanding of human behaviour and Freud’s net of theories interact with each other in a very interesting, ultimately satisfying, way.
The writing is sparse but elegant. The setting, as I have said, is minimal; you must rely a great deal on your imagination for scene setting. There is the inevitable problem with reading a detail and thinking ‘oh, yes, that was mentioned in the introduction, I remember that explanation’, which derails things a bit, but I don’t see a stylistic way around that kind of an issue. Overall, this is a skilled retelling of the Oedipus myth that is worth a read for its character development and the interesting places that it takes the story.