Freud’s Chow

I have been reading one of my favourite author’s latest books, Sally Vickers’ Where Three Roads Meet. It is a fictional retelling of the Oedipal Myth, which has sent me back to have a look at Sophocles’ The Theban Plays.(Penguin Classics). Vickers’ narrative tells of Sigmund Freud being visited by a mysterious stranger during his last year of life in 1938, as he succumbs to jaw and mouth cancer in London. This person is none other than the blind prophet, Tiresias, who played a vital, yet lesser known, role in the Oedipal story that became an allegory for Freud’s psychoanalysis. Vickers recounts the tragic narrative from Tiresias’s perspective, and creates his personal story, giving him a past history and voice as a Delphic priest assisting the Pythia on Mount Parnassus.

Vickers explains the meaning of ‘Oedipus’ as “swollen feet”; Jocasta, the mother, had pierced and shackled together the feet of her infant, before having him exposed on a mountain, so that he would not grow up to kill his father, as the oracle had predicted. It is at a meeting point of three roads, linking Delphi, Daulis and Thebes, that Oedipus meets and unwittingly kills his father. He then goes on to marry his mother and have four children with her, after having outwitted the Sphinx that terrorised the Thebans; he does this by answering the riddle posed: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” (Man).

Teresias is alone in knowing the true story of who killed King Laius. The shepherd, who had found the infant Oedipus on Mount Cithaeron, and taken him to a kindly royal couple to rear, reappears at this stage. Threatened by Oedipus, Teresias unwillingly reveals the whole truth concerning the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophesy. In anguish, Oedipus discovers that his wife/mother has hanged herself, and he then pokes out his own eyes with the pins used by Jocasta to bind her baby’s feet together. The tragic circle is complete. Oedipus wanders the earth as a beggar until he reaches absolution and peace through the getting of wisdom and the coming of death.

This retelling occurs with the tragic narrative of Freud’s illness as backdrop. There is a connection and empathy between the two men, despite Freud’s more materialistic outlook. Teresias, who knows all, is blind, and loves nature, especially birds that he sees as messengers from the gods. Freud, who loves to talk, is rendered mute by illness, and must wear a hideous contraption (“Monster”) over his diseased jaw. He, too, loves nature in the form of special flowering trees, as well as dogs; and he keeps a precious statue of the goddess Athena on his desk as a symbol of good fortune, even though he is a realist and a materialist.

Freud’s favourite pet chow, Lun, who had been quarantined after being brought out from Vienna, enters the narrative briefly early on. There is also a reference to another chow, Jo-fi, who used to vet the patients in Freud’s surgery in Vienna, and always knew when the hour-long analysis session was up. Vickers suggests that it was when the faithful Lun retreated from the smell of his master’s inoperable wound, that Freud knew the end was nigh, and asked for morphine to release him from pain and from life.

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