Oedipus, Maddy and the trouble with myths

By Natasha Lehrer, April 18, 2008
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Where Three Roads Meet
By Salley Vickers; Canongate, £12.99

Salley Vickers, who is both a psychoanalyst and a novelist, accepted the challenge of Canongate’s Myths series — to retell a myth “in a contemporary and memorable way” — with a smart conceit, imagining an encounter between Tiresias and Sigmund Freud, an ancient mythical character and the great modern reteller of ancient myths, in the last weeks of Freud’s life.

One can imagine Tiresias, the ragged, blind soothsayer, not even turning heads as he tramps across Hampstead Heath to meet Freud at his Maresfield Gardens home, where the great doctor is confined to his bed, his mouth ravaged by the cancer that will soon kill him. What is one more unkempt, intense-looking, badly dressed man stalking across that stretch of wilderness, whose paths are determined by the growth of ancient trees that cut through the grime of the city?

As the paths that criss-cross the Heath connect different parts of North London, so the Heath itself provides a vantage point for viewing the whole city. And, just as Tiresias’s and Freud’s encounter joins up different mythical moments in history, yoking together ancient and modern, so their meeting is a vantage point from which to view the Oedipus myth that, according to Freud, defines all human relationships. Via a somewhat circuitous route, Hampstead becomes a perfect, if unexpected, metaphor for all human life and desires. Freud, bedridden and dying, lies on the famous couch enacting the talking cure that he invented.

Much of the time, however, Vickers’s novel feels freighted with its own cleverness, as the analyst becomes the analysand. “Tell me the end, Tiresias. You know, I believe I’ve had a fear of endings,” Freud says, his own end nigh. Where Three Roads Meet doesn’t feel like a novel. Although it is constructed around a fictional conceit, its virtually narrative-free dialogue gives the book the nature of a recorded session of analysis: wordy and undramatic.

Yet, towards the end, when Tiresias recounts his version of Oedipus’s discovery of who he is, Vickers’s story takes off electrifyingly. It is then that Vickers’s purpose — to return Oedipus his story — becomes clear. Since Freud’s appropriation of the Oedipus narrative, one of the great myths of Greek culture has slipped its moorings, becoming associated primarily with modern psychoanalysis and its bastard son, pop psychology. We talk of the Oedipal complex without knowing the story, we refer to it without thinking of the profound and terrible human suffering that its lineaments trace.

Vickers retells what happened at Thebes between Oedipus and Jocasta. Vickers’s soothsayer reminds us that our hunger for myth is based on a misplaced sense of empathy.

We live in an age when our newspapers furnish us daily with modern myths of suffering and glory: the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the pain of Amy Winehouse, the exploits of Paris Hilton, the conquests of Kate Moss. Lives played out in the public arena are nothing less than modern myths by which we assign meaning to our own existence.

Natasha Lehrer is a translator and critic

    Last updated: 2:20pm, April 22 2008