A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis

So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!

“Now it would be easy to argue that this strange thought that occurred to me on the Acropolis only serves to emphasise the fact that seing something with one’s own eyes is after all quite a different thing from hearing or reading about it. But even so it would remain a most remarkable disguise for an uninteresting commonplace….

“The experience at Trieste was, it will be noticed, also no more than an expression of disbelief: ‘We’re going to see Athens? Out of the question! – it will be far too difficult!’ The accompanying depression corresponded to a regret that it was out of the question: it would have been so lovely. And now we know where we are. It is one of those cases of ‘too good to be true’ that we come across so often. It is an example of the scepticism that arises so often when we are surprised by a piece of good news, when we hear we have won a prize for instance, or drawn a winner, or when a girl learns that a man whom she has secretly loved has asked her parents for leave to pay his addresses to her.

“When we have established the existence of a phenomenon, the next question is of course as to its cause. Disbelief of this kind is obviously an attempt to repudiate a piece of reality; but there is something strange about it. We should not in the least be astonished if an attempt of this kind were aimed at a piece of reality that threatened unpleasant consequences: the mechanism of our mind is, so to speak, planned to work along just such lines. But why should such disbelief arise in something which, on the contrary, promises to bring a high degree of pleasure? Truly paradoxical behaviour! But I recollect that on a previous occasion I dealt with the similar case of people who, as I put it, are ‘wrecked by success’ …. In another set of cases, just as in those who are wrecked by success, we find a sense of guilt or inferiority, which can be translated: ‘I am not worthy of such happiness, I don’t deserve it.’ But these two motives are essentially the same, for one is only a projection of the other. For, as has long been known, the fate which we expect to treat us so badly is a materialisation of our conscience, of the severe super-ego within us, itself a residue of the punitive agency of our childhood… We could not believe that we were to be given the joy of seeing Athens.” ……

“It is not true that in my school days I ever doubted the real existence of Athens. I only doubted whether I should ever see Athens. It seemed to me beyond the realms of possibility that I should travel so far – that I should ‘go such a long way’. This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life. My longing to travel was also no doubt the expression of a wish to escape from that pressure, like the force which drives so many adolescent children to run away from home. I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfilment of these early wishes, that it is rooted in dissatisfaction with home and family. When one first catches sight of the sea, crosses the ocean and experiences as realities cities and lands which which for so long had been distant, unattainable things of desire – one feels oneself like a hero who has performed deeds of improbable greatness. I might that day on the Acropolis have said to my brother; ‘Do you still remember how, when we were young, we used day after day to walk along the same streets on our way to school, and how every Sunday we used to go to the Prater or on some excursion we knew so well? And now, here we are in Athens, and standing on the Acropolis! We really have gone a long way!’ So too, if I may compare such a small event with a greater one, Napoleon, during his coronation as Emperor in Notre Dame, turned to one of his elder brothers – it must no doubt have been the eldest one, Joseph – and remarked: ‘What would Monsieur notre Père have said to this, if he could have been here today?’

“But here we come upon the solution of the little problem of why it was that already at Trieste we interfered with our enjoyment of the voyage to Athens. It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having got so far: there was someting about it that was wrong, that was from earliest times forbidden. It was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of earlier childhood. It seems as though the essence of sucess were to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father were still something forbidden.

“As an addition to this generally valid motive there was a special factor present in our particular case. The very theme of Athens and the Acropolis in itself contained evidence of the son’s superiority. Our father had been in business, he had had no secondary education, and Athens could not have meant much to him. Thus what interfered with our enjoyment of the journey to Athens was a feeling of piety. And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.”

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