Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freud among the breathing idols


The exhibition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum is the most exciting Egyptian exhibit I've seen. A portal image just inside the doors is worth the price of entry: a statuette of the ka-soul of Senoru, master of horse, clasping his ba-soul, depicted as a human-headed bird, to his heart.

The exhibition was crowded (Egypt is the perennial favorite of museum-goers) but there was good flow control. Kids were able to push their programs into slots and receive an Egyptian spell in return - for example, for changing into a bird, a snake or a crocodile.

Figures from 3,000 or 5,000 years ago, sculpted to hold an aspect of the soul, or a spirit that would "answer" for it (shabti) in the afterlife, or to guard a tomb, seemed strangely alive. I was reminded that the Greeks, who were fascinated by Egyptian statue magic, described such figures as "breathing idols".

It was strange to go from this to the Freud Museum, in the modest brick house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead where he lived for the last year of his life. It is filled with literally thousands of statuettes of gods and other supernaturals, mostly Egyptian, that Freud collected in Vienna. Some fifty are stationed like a battalion of soldiers on his desk. He placed others, like palace guard, between himself and patrients. He claimed to know all of them intimately and would choose different ones to stroke or consult - with his focused gaze - during sessions with patients.

I had known that Freud was a collector of antiquities, but the vastness of this collection is stunning. He compared his practice of psychoanalysis to archeology, in the sense of digging things up from buried levels of consciousness, and it seems that archeology was his favorite area of reading.

Freud, the doubter of the soul and its survival of physical death, who denied that life has any ultimate meaning, surrounded himself with images of ancient gods and spirits. He was surely aware that the Egyptian figures he collected were ritually ensouled, and thus believed to hold a part of the spirit of the dead, or something of the power of a god or psychic guardian.

In the British Museum exhibit was a beautifully carved torso of a dead woman, used as a kind of interworld telephone. A letter addressed to the funerary bust by a survivor began:

How are you?
Is the West [region of the departed] being good to you?
Look, I am one you loved.

May I see you fighting for me in a dream?

Did Freud's "breathing images" come alive in his dreams? My bet is that they did - and also that it is rather unlikely that he left records of those encounters, which would have run so contrary to his rather narrow doctrine of what goes on in dreams.

He did speak of how his art collection illuminated his understanding of symbols and colored his theories about neuroses. No surprise to find a picture of Oedipus with the sphinx on his wall. I see that a fellow-Australian, Janine Burke, has written a study of Freud's collection titled The Gods of Freud published, so far as I can ascertain, only in Australia. Naturally (since bibliophilia is an incurable condition for some of us) I have now ordered it from Oz.


nina said...
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Justin Patrick Moore said...

Better bibliophilia than the Oedipus complex. Speaking of bibiliophilia I have addded a new pertinent comment to a bok thread on the forum.

Adelita Chirino said...

I appreciate your take on Freud, Robert; here and in The Secret History of Dreaming. Very enlightening.