Wembley Stadium

There has been much discussion in recent months about the proposal to demolish the famous Wembley Stadium in London and create a new national stadium on the site.

Many people feel that Wembley is a national monument and are dismayed that the building is to be knocked down. They are particularly perturbed by the loss of the symbolic ‘twin towers’, which seem to sum up the deep cultural significance of the stadium.

If Freud were alive today and following this story in the media, he would be struck by a number of questions:

  • Why is Wembley stadium called ‘Wembley Stadium’?
  • What is the significance of the twin towers?
  • What has the stadium – this ‘national icon’ as it has been called – got to do with the lamentable state of English football?

Well, OK, Freud would probably not have asked the last question, but he would have certainly asked the first two.

Freud saw much in common between cultural history and dreams, and he used the concepts of displacement and condensation to show how little things can have the import of something big – like an army might battle over a small patch of land, or a single image can encapsulate a multitude of meanings.

In this case he would have noticed a massive disproportion between the significance of a National Stadium, and the name ‘Wembley Stadium’ – named after the local area in which it finds itself. It could so easily have been ‘Tower Hamlets stadium’ or ‘Neasden Stadium’. There are many stadia named after the district in which they are built – Hackney stadium, White City stadium and so on, but none of them are regarded as sites of religious pilgrimage as Wembley is (Pele calls it ‘the cathedral of football’).

So here’s the story that Freud would have discovered:

Of course it was not originally called Wembley Stadium. The stadium was started in 1918 and was planned for the opening of the Empire Exhibition in 1924. It was originally called ‘The Empire Stadium’. From the greatest empire the world has ever known to a now-run-down district in North London – can you see why Freud regards history as like a dream? Something is happening in the substitution of one name by another, a loss is being acknowledged (and denied), a loss entering into the sediment of national consciousness that may have been prefigured in the construction of the stadium in the first place.

Because 1918 is not an innocent year. It was the year that marked the death knell of the world in which ‘The British Empire’ meant anything. At the end of the most horrific war in history, it was the year in which an old order died, but perhaps didn’t realise it. The stadium amounts to an attempt to ‘unite’ the nation through the same arrogant assumptions of Empire while solidifying the class structure and the old status quo (including the sleight of hand that turns what is essentially an ‘English Empire’ into a ‘British’ Empire).

What are the traces of this in the building itself? In the most potent symbol of the stadium, of course, the iconic ‘Twin Towers’. In his paper ‘The Uncanny’, Freud talks of the phenomenon of the double, of doubling, and of mutiplying in general: “The ‘double’ was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’, as Rank says; and probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body. This invention of doubling as a preservation against extinction has its counterpart in the language of dreams, which is fond of representing castration by a doubling or multiplication of a genital symbol” (think of the snakes on the head of the Medusa). So the Twin Towers both affirm and deny ‘castration’ at the same time. Like the fetish that they are, it both avows and disavows the threat to (Imperial) potency, coming into existence at the twilight of Empire, a last hurrah with the writing on the wall.

In its aspect of denial, the stadium embodies an illusion. It is the illusion of imperial arrogance and the right to ‘rule’. The illusion that the First World War meant nothing, that time can be stopped in its tracks (Freud calls the fetish that marks the threat of castration ‘a memorial’) – that we are not castrated after all. I think that this illusion is one of the reasons why England has failed so dismally at the game they invented. The idea of a god-given right to rule and the assumption of superiority (of the upper classes over the lower and of the English over other nations and races) undermines a rational approach to achieving success. The stadium displays a remarkable trait of British character – the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ – which consists in the ability to turn defeat into victory. Unfortunately turning defeat into illusory victory does not win football competitions.

So here is a reason for the state of English football, with its anti-intellectualism, its ethos of ‘hard work’ and obeying orders (one of the legacies of the class system), its wholesale embracing of the ‘military metaphor’ , and so on. On a recent Channel 5 programme the footballer John Salako – by no coincidence a player of mixed-race origins – tried to put his finger on the state of the national game: “We’re very insular and we’ve got a belief that we’ve got a divine right to win games” he said. That’s why I am delighted at the demolition of Wembley stadium – if only the symbolic baggage was as easy to pull down!

The Empire Exhibition 1924

From information given by John Oxley (in internet discussion with John Carman, Cambridge University):

The British Empire Exhibition itself was opened by King George V on 23rd April 1924. It attracted millions of visitors and even re-opened between May and October the following year which lifted the final attendance to an amazing 27,102,498. The Exhibition was truly a wonder of the world, with fountains, lakes, gardens and hundreds of pavilions; each representing the architectural style of the countries exhibiting there. There were 4,500,000 admissions to the Empire Stadium alone. When King George V spoke at its opening, it was the first time that a monarch had broadcast on radio.

Interesting, isn’t it?

What do we mean by ‘castration’?

I know it seems strange to talk about ‘castration’ in relation to cultural processes like this, so perhaps I should say a little about it. If I feel ‘part of’ the British Empire (in the case we are discussing) and the British Empire feels ‘part of’ me, then this symbolic construct becomes vital in my assumption of ‘identity’. Consequently the loss of this symbol, or any threat to it, feels like a loss of part of myself, or a threat to an important part of myself. This threat to identity echoes the key threat to sexual identity which is ‘castration’. In other words we can see social rituals and memorials as a collective way of dealing with psychological fears and traumas.

The possibility of loss has to be acknowledged in order for the society to go forward (‘grow up’ as it were). How many amputees were walking the streets after the first world war for instance? What effect did that have on the rest of the population? Were the Twin Towers a denial of that awful reality, of that traumatic loss to the ‘flower of British manhood’? What was the impact of the idea that the war had been futile; that millions of young men had been sent to their deaths by the collective fathers for nothing?

In some ways ‘growing up’ entails an acceptance of castration as one of the many losses that a child has to overcome in development. And the question arises: what does it take for a country to grow up and to relinquish the protective symbolic fictions that have supported it in the past? This is a ‘discourse’ which touches the deepest springs of human desires and fears.

As a matter of incidental interest, on the day I wrote this page there was a programme on TV about George V. He was apparently a tyrant to his children (they ended up with suicidal depression, anorexia, a debilitating stammer and so on).

On one occasion at the birth of a new child, one of them asked where the new baby had come from.

“It flew in through the window” he was told

“But where are it’s wings?” asked the incredulous child.

“THEY WERE CUT OFF” barked his father, trying to be jovial but terrifying the little boy.

For a more thorough-going defence of the castration complex (I say ‘defence’ because of course even psychoanalysts hardly mention it any more), see ‘Introducing Psychoanalysis’ by Ivan Ward, and his book ‘Castration’ in the Ideas in Psychoanalysis series.

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