Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.30

Rachel Bowlby, Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedy and Modern Identities.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. viii, 251.  ISBN 9780199566228.  $49.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Brian V. Lush, College of Charleston (

Table of Contents

Rachel Bowlby provides a study of the intimate connection of tragedy and myth to the development of Freud's framework of desire and repression. In this effort, Bowlby's work has what seem to be two aims: to recognize the basic debt owed by Freud and psychoanalysis to Greco-Roman mythology and Greek tragedy, and to assert what she sees as the flexibility and potential adaptability of "Freudian mythologies" to modern familial structures that continually change. Bowlby thereby attempts to elucidate the fundamental role that ancient mythology and drama play in the development of Freud's model of unconscious desire, repression and the "family romance."

Chapter one ("Freud's Classical Mythologies") lays the foundation for Bowlby's discussion of the debt owed by Freud to Greek tragedy and his Classical training. Bowlby describes how Freud's "Oedipal complex" drew upon Sophocles' iconic tragedy, and traces the way in which tragedy's formal elements suggested to Freud a model for the therapeutic process. Further, Bowlby gives an account of the influence exercised upon Freud by the work of Léopold Constans on the background to the Oedipus myth and by the work of Jacob Bernays (the uncle of Freud's wife) on Aristotelian catharsis. Like Nietzsche, Freud drew upon Greek tragedy as a wellspring for his theory of the unconscious in part because it "offered the monumental associations of a phenomenon fixed for all time but also invested with the temporally distant dignity of an ancient culture" (45).

Bowlby's second chapter ("Never Done, Never to Return: Hysteria and After") deals primarily with Studies on Hysteria, which Freud co-authored in 1895 with fellow therapist Josef Breuer, and to which Bowlby largely attributes the genesis of psychoanalysis. Bowlby explains how the "talking cure," developed by Freud and Breuer in response to symptoms of "hysteria" in early patients such as Anna O., draws heavily upon Aristotle's description of tragic catharsis, and upon Bernay's 1857 article ("Aristotle on the Effect of Tragedy") on the effects of tragic catharsis. The development of a cathartic model for the treatment of hysteria, in which the patient plays both the actor of her sufferings and spectator to their effects), paved the way for Freud's later description of a "pattern for human psychology in general, not just for hysterical patients who had first pointed it out to him . . ." (61). In this way, Freud's initial understanding of hysteria as the reminiscence of an unwelcome thought evolves into a broader theory, in which sexual fantasies serve for individuals as the fulfillment of a repressed wish -- one of the fundamental premises upon which Freud relies in his groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams (1899).

The third chapter ("Fifty-Fifty: Female Subjectivity and the Danaids"), provides a detailed account of Freud's conception of women's psychological development and experience -- a conception (problematically) informed by his Oedipal model of male desire and identification). In the Studies on Hysteria, Freud refers to the task of analysis as a Danaidarbeit (curiously translated by Strachey as "Sisyphean task"). Bowlby focuses upon this reference to the daughters of Danaus as a lens to understanding Freud's treatment of female subjectivity: ". . .it is possible to see in those leaky vessels and involuntary flows a picture of femininity as a dismal subjection to both dysfunctional biology and uselessly repetitive, unskilled work" (78). A substantial digression follows on the Danaids in Aeschylus (Suppl.), Pindar (Pyth. 9) and Ovid (Her. 14). In Aeschylus, the Danaids become a "band of proto-feminists" who reject male aggression; in Pindar, a group of woman from whose past husband-murder is elided; in Ovid, individualized actors whose choices are described in counterpoint to Hypermestra's decision not to kill. Bowlby treats Hypermestra's account of Io in Ovid's fictitious epistle as suggestive of Freud's model: Io's reaction to seeing her new bovine form "resembles Freud's account of the way that women encounter sexual difference: with an immediate acknowledgement but also a protest, in the face of an irrefutable visual perception" (95). Bowlby explains that closer consideration of these literary treatments of the Danaids could have lent sophistication to Freud's model of female subjectivity.

Chapter four ("The Other Day: The Interpretation of Daydreams") explores the relationship of daydreams to nighttime dreaming and to Freud's analysis of wish-fulfillment and unconscious desire. Although Bowlby's discussion of daydreams in Freud's work is accessible and engaging, this chapter fails to draw much upon Greek tragedy and myth, and its thematic connection the preceding chapters therefore seems unclear at times. In Bowlby's explanation, daydreams in Freud's model resemble night-dreams in their secondary revision of mundane stimuli but, unlike night-dreams, are directed to future instances of love (equated with female sexuality) and ambition (equated with masculine agency) and not the "ancient satisfactions" of night-dreams. Bowlby follows this examination with a close reading of Freud's accidental inclusion of himself in his recollection of a daydream from Daudet's novel Le Nabab. According to Bowlby, Freud's own daytime protégé-fantasy of rescuing a socially superior man fits squarely into his model of daydreams as "recognizably social stories" that are essentially "mobile wish-fulfillments of modern life" (122).

Chapter five ("A Freudian Curiosity") treats the awakening and development of sexual knowledge in children . Bowlby's explanations here are illuminating and sensitively wrought but do not create an explicit link between tragedy, myth and Freud's conception of childhood development. Bowlby begins by tracing sexual awakening to the first stage of Freudian development -- curiosity about the origin of babies. The search for sexual knowledge is rendered inconclusive by the deception of adult parents and eventually leads to questions about differences between the sexes. Bowlby explains that, according to Freud, children's initial awareness of only one sex (male) gives way to a jarring discovery of a lack (of a penis) evident in the other sex (female). This "threat to the self" is felt as a fear of castration. Girls' realization of sexual difference emerges in the realization of their "castration," of the lack of a penis (and a masculinity) that cannot be acquired. Bowlby points out this realization as children's "initiation into the world of human meanings and myths" (145), and speculates that the curiosity of twenty-first-century children may yield outcomes very different than those possible in Freud's world.

Bowlby's sixth chapter ("The Cronus Complex: Psychoanalytic Myths of the Future for Boys and Girls") explores castration, the fear of castration, and children's recognition of gender difference in Freud's psychoanalytic framework. The childhood recognition of this difference is, for girls, a kind of tragedy with an anagnorisis ("I lack a penis") and a peripeteia (reversal of psychic trajectory), whereas for boys the fear of castration engendered by the realization of gender difference plays an integral part in resolving the Oedipal complex and bringing adolescent boys into male adulthood. This "myth of castration" and its pivotal role in childhood development have clear roots in Cronus' castration of Uranus. On the one hand, Freud's analysis of this pattern keeps Zeus apart from the actions of his progenitor, since (according to Bowlby) Zeus is supposed to inaugurate a more civilized and functional social order. On the other hand, in Freud's mind, this "correct" version of the myth seems to compete with another, in which Zeus continues the "atrocities" of his predecessors in castrating his father -- a confusion that seems to me to reflect both the sublimation of the Oedipal complex and its persistence in the unconscious. Bowlby ends by responding to Freud's account of childhood development along the lines of a castration myth: ". . .it seems anachronistic and needlessly hopeless now to cling to a myth in which women's most fundamental conflicts are determined by the realization that they are women, not men" (167-8).

Bowlby's seventh and eighth chapters ("Oedipal Origins" and "Playing God: Reproductive Realism in Euripides' Ion," respectively) provide close readings of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and Euripides' Ion. Each chapter is meantto add complexity to Freud's portrayal of familial relations, first by examining the play that proved so influential to Freud's work (O.T.), then a family drama neglected by Freud in the development of his psychoanalytic model (Ion). B's seventh chapter focuses upon Oedipus' multiple parentage, and his status as an adopted child with multiple fathers (Polybus, Laius), multiple mothers (Merope, Jocasta), foster parents (Corinthian messenger, Theban servant), and partial parents (Mount Cithaeron, Tyche). Chapter eight examines evolving family dynamics in Euripides' Ion, and describes Ion as a "mobile subject" (197) whose newly acquired family becomes "a mere illusion -- a sweet delusion -- of psychological stability and security" (204). Each chapter ends by positing connections to such modern familial arrangements as the transnational adoptions of the 1990s (188-9) and the "very modern predicaments of mixed or muddled parentage" (215).

Although Bowlby's readings of these two family dramas are sensitive and original, they make little direct use of the sophisticated Freudian analysis that has occupied her first six chapters. Whereas chapters four and five engage with Freud's psychoanalytic model to the relative neglect of tragic and mythic material, these chapters focus upon Greek tragedy and myth without consistently or directly drawing upon Freud's work. After her introduction to "Oedipal Origins" (pp. 169-74), Freud is cited only twice in chapter seven (178n.11 and 179n.12), with Charles Segal making only a single appearance (187n.16). Likewise, Bowlby's chapter on Ion draws in only a limited way upon Freud (194 with n.7, and 200n.16). Readers who wish for a more consistent application of both Classical scholarship and Freud's model of family dynamics to the Ion may also wish to consult Victoria Pedrick's Euripides, Freud, and the Romance of Belonging (Baltimore, 2007), published in the same year as the initial release of Bowlby's present work. Nevertheless, Bowlby's readings of O.T. and Ion offer a more complex reading of family relations than Freud's own adaptation of Greek tragedy and in this way begin to address Bowlby's stated goal of illuminating "the theories of Freudian psychoanalysis and related classical texts in relation to future possibilities" (13).

Bowlby's final chapter ("Retranslations, Reproductions, Recapitulations") seeks to broaden the applicability of the previous chapters rather than to synthesize and clarify the book's arguments, and for this reason readers may find Bowlby's concluding remarks a bit diffuse. Bowlby first likens the process of republishing or translating a text to the therapeutic process, and asserts that Freud's own work can (and should) be reread and repackaged, rather than standardized. On the topic of "reproductions," Bowlby explains that "rapid transformations in the norms and possibilities of chosen reproduction may take us back to the forgotten strangeness of any process of conception and birth" (224). Bowlby ends by making note of Freud's debt to recapitulation theory in his analysis of "how people do and don't change in relation to patterns set down in the past" (229).

A number of strengths will recommend this new work to a variety of readers. Classicists are likely to find Bowlby's contribution satisfying and worthwhile in its consistent recognition of the fundamental debt owed by Freud not just to the Oedipus Tyrannus but to his own Classical training, to a thorough familiarity with Greek and Roman myth, and often to contemporary analyses by Classical philologists. In this way, Bowlby's analysis manages to illuminate both the ancient material and the development of Freud's thought. Readers with a background in philology are also likely to find Bowlby's textually focused approach to Freud gratifying. Bowlby continually engages both with the original German of Freud's Gesammelte Werke and with James Strachey's translation of Freud into the English Standard Edition, upon which Freud himself often collaborated with Strachey. For instance, Bowlby draws attention to Strachey's "tendency to undercut the humanistic connotations of die Seele (the soul) in favour of a more scientific language" (131n.9). Finally, Bowlby articulately draws attention to current instances that complicate the tripartite family upon which Freud bases his model of adolescent development (e.g., multiple parentage and in vitro fertilization, 215).

The main weakness of Freudian Mythologies lies in a lack of linearity and sequential connection between its parts. Although the chapters provide compelling and sensitive readings of Freud and of the texts and myths that influenced him, the book as a whole does not seem to be arranged according to a well defined and deliberate sequence. Bowlby fails to explain why she engages with the specific topics (e.g., daydreaming, castration) that she has chosen. Likewise, although the analyses of her chosen plays in chapters seven and eight are illuminating and valuable, Bowlby neglects to explain her choice of examining Ion but not other plays that are relevant and susceptible to psychoanalytic readings. For instance, Bowlby's comments upon Euripides' Bacchae would have been welcome, given the sustained and sophisticated application by Classicists of psychoanalytic models to this play.

Errors in the book are minor and do not detract from its overall appeal. I have been able to locate the following: on p. 22, Bowlby claims that tragedies were "roughly an hour and a half long in performance," but provides no evidence to support this claim; on p. 86 (4 lines from the top), "and nor" should be changed to "nor"; on p. 173, Bowlby seems to me to overstate the "slurring" of syntax at Soph. O.T. 780 (the proleptic position of πλαστὸς does not confuse the verse's meaning); on p. 180 (15 lines from the bottom), Bowlby writes "Laius" where she seems to mean "Polybus"; on p. 233 (5 lines from the top), "their" should be changed to "its" to agree with its singular antecedent.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 09:15:43, Friday, 16 April 2010