Inspiration hit me when I was wandering through the library (as I do) and there it was... reviewing my old interviews with authors would show my interview with Salley Vickers, in which we discussed for a while her entry for the Canongate updated mythology series.
Critical Analysis of a Literary Text
Discuss the role of Tiresias in Salley Vickers’s ‘Where Three Roads Meet’
“Know thyself” (Vickers, p.99) Tiresias tells Sigmund Freud at the height of their discussions on Oedipus and, in this particular case, Oedipus’ understanding of the riddle of the Sphinx. It is this self awareness, or self analysis, that lies at the heart of ‘Where Three Roads Meet’, and is the fundamental basis for Tiresias’ role in deconstructing Freud’s Oedipus complex.
The professed abilities of Antiquity’s prophets can be seen, in all their metaphorical ambiguities, as shaping the science of the mind. Freud was one of many to call upon ancient stories and metaphors to help develop his theories, though Vickers, a psychoanalyst herself (Vickers’s Website), prescribes to Jung’s theory that where the myth of Oedipus was concerned, “Freud’s not read it correctly” (Feay).
Know thyself is a philosophy Oedipus’ pride and drive prevented him from fully understanding and contributes in part to the tragedy of his downfall. Freud touches on this when he says “[Oedipus] was more comforted by truth than fortified by comfort” (Vickers, p.169). However, it is best illustrated in the schism between Oedipus and the Chorus, when he claims he was responsible for solving the riddle of the Sphinx (Sophocles, 536) while the Chorus suggest “There was a god in it, a god in you” (Sophocles, 58). It also shows in the divide between Freud, who diagnosed Oedipus’ problems as being the making of his own psyche, and Freud’s one-time protégé, Carl Jung, who considered that “the problem of antiquity… [is that] there is a lot of infantile sexuality in it” (Hayman, 1999, p.119).
Author Salley Vickers has observed that “at the end of his life [Freud] was revising his theories… So the subject of Oedipus would have been at the forefront of his mind” (Vickers’s Website). She uses this ongoing development (comprising 6 stages over a period of 41 years), coupled with Freud’s age and failing health, to entertain the notion that Freud might, even subconsciously, consider counterarguments. In doing so Vickers is standing on the shoulders of Jung, who tried and failed to get Freud to, “… get rid of all your complexes and stop playing the father to your sons and take a good look at your weak spots instead of aiming continually at theirs” (Hayman, p.163).
The role of the blind prophet Tiresias in several tragedies and stories surrounding the ancient Greek city of Thebes, amounts to warnings and prophecies. As the seer from the ‘Oedipus’ he is central to the events of the play, having pronounced the prophecy whose outcome Freud took as the basis for “the linchpin of his theory of infantile sexuality”: the ‘Oedipus’ Complex (Vickers’s Website). In ‘Where Three Roads Meet’ Vickers takes Tiresias’ seer role at its basest function: to act as analyst. While not a representation of psychoanalysis, since Tiresias would analyse waking dreams and signs in nature in order to relate the prophecies of the gods, he does reflect the thoughts and feelings of Freud as a psychologist or counsellor might.
Tiresias, it seems apparent, was chosen as a foil for Freud because he is one of the earliest representations of a man whose mind and wits are used for the benefit of others. Before the philosophies of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato began to shape the hearts and minds of Ancient Greece, men and kings alike would turn to the seers and oracles for guidance on how to shape their lives or how their lives were shaped. Oedipus acknowledges the power and skill of Tiresias’ role in the ‘Oedipus’ by welcoming Tiresias to Thebes and proclaiming, “We are in your hands Teirsias. No work is more nobly human than helping others” (Sophocles, 426), as do the Chorus when they exclaim “the truth is rooted in his soul” (Sophocles, 411). Tiresias’ role carries great weight and significance in both the ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Where Three Roads Meet’.
In the ‘Oedipus’ Tiresias proves: his insight, with his prophecies, “… see who he really is: their brother and their father; his wife’s son, his mother’s husband” (Sophocles, 629); his empathy, when he doesn’t want to share this hurtful reality with Oedipus, “I will do nothing to hurt myself, or you” (Sophocles, 450); and his guile at reflecting Oedipus’ feelings, “That gift is your destiny. It made you everything you are, and it has ruined you” (Sophocles, 610). These are the three core skills of an analyst and a counsellor that Tiresias employs in respect to Freud in ‘Where Three Roads Meet’.
Tiresias’ empathy extends to showing his acceptance of Freud’s weaknesses and normalising them, by making light of his own, “No matter, I stumble too” (Vickers, p.23). He also does not disagree with Freud’s godless belief that he shall never get to see his dead mother again (Vickers, p.42). He reflects with Freud that Freud reasons there is a universality man shares with man in myth (Vickers, p.28). More importantly, his insight is shown in his ability to explain the meaning of the story of Oedipus and the manner in which he is able to avoid debates on digressed topics. When Freud belittles the “primitive need” of deity worship or suggests Tiresias may have had an Oedipus complex, Tiresias only says, “Whatever you say, Doctor” (Vickers, p.30, p.36). Later, Tiresias comes to pre-empt Freud’s tendency to jump to conclusions, by asking Freud to listen to what he has to say first (Vickers, p.104).
It is Vickers’s intent to blur the lines between the roles Freud and Tiresias play. One allusion to the similarities between psychoanalyst and oracle are in their choice of seating. Tiresias mentions that, “the Pythia sat on a three-legged stool to utter the divine pronouncements” (Vickers, p.83). Freud had a three-legged analysing chair – his “tripod” – “We had it specially made.” (Vickers, p.24). Coupled with these similarities, the Socratic dialogue that Freud and Tiresias engage in evokes a very real sense that the pair’s opposing viewpoints are designed to stimulate the critical thinking Freud’s subconscious needs to reach its conclusion. However, Tiresias’ refusal to enter into debates on certain subjects suggests that he is leading the conversation.
Following the introduction that frames Vickers’s novella, the main body of the text is presented as a dialogue, or script, rather than a narrative piece. Descriptions and actions, aside from any that Freud and Tiresias may share or direct at each other, are redundant here. The effect is to create the appearance of a transcript that lends the reading of the piece a sense of urgency and helps to depict the dialogues shared by Freud and Tiresias as analytical sessions.
It is Freud who imagines, by their fourth meeting, that he is in an analytical session. He acts, initially in the dominant role of host and analyst, by offering Tiresias a seat, but, “No, no, not, please, my analysing chair.” (Vickers, p.24). Tiresias even sets up this misconception by telling Freud, “It is your gift for listening I need” (Vickers, p.26). However, what Freud does not realise and which becomes increasingly apparent to the reader is that Freud comes to adopt the role of patient, while Tiresias becomes the analyst.
On his fifth visit, Tiresias does not wish to “dislodge” Freud from his couch and when he offers to sit by the desk Freud accepts that Tiresias should “take the armchair by me” (Vickers, p.42). On the sixth, when offered the couch and Tiresias answers, “I prefer not”, Freud admits that he would rather remain lying upon it (Vickers, p.59). By the seventh visit, Vickers has done away with talk of where to sit and though Freud might be oblivious to this reversal, particularly since he has previously asked, “Tell me, what has been in your mind since we met?” (Vickers, p.59), it is clear to the reader that Vickers’s intent is to have Tiresias’ tale relate a universal truth in order to help Freud.
It is fitting then that Vickers has chosen to invite Tiresias to hold discourse with Freud. Throughout Carl Jung’s life, Jung discussed philosophical matters with a fantasy figure: Philemon. Jung said “[Philemon] was to me what the Indians call a guru… a man with great intellect and ability who could have decoded for me the involuntary creations of my fantasy” (Hayman, p.179). Just as Tiresias was born of myths and stories, so too was Philemon. “[He] had appeared in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and in Goethe’s ‘Faust’” (Philemon Foundation Website). There is synchronicity between the roles of Philemon and Tiresias. Both are seers and both reflect the subconscious of the men in whose minds they have been created.
This is Vickers’s design: an irony that mirrors Jung’s schizophrenia in Freud’s drugged and post-trauma mind. Tiresias, like Philemon, is an “archetypal image of the spirit” (Hyde & McGuinness, p.55). He is present to help Freud reconcile his consciousness with his theories. Freud makes his standpoint on gods and God clear, “[a] ‘deity’ is a primitive need to rationalise natural injustice” (Vickers, p.30), and, “My dear fellow, I have no god.” (Vickers, p.31). Stricken as he is with cancer and overshadowing death, Freud has no God to turn to or repent before, as a man of faith would. He only has himself to face. A subconscious desire, as Vickers has decided to portray it, to reconcile his disagreement with Jung, particularly since Freud “did not regard his own experiences as automatically valid for all humanity” (Fay, p.90) and would wonder “whether his claim that everyone passes through [the Oedipus complex] can be substantiated” (Jacobs, p.15).
Freud took issue with the questioning his ideas received, and was particularly affronted by Jung’s interpretations of sexuality and the Oedipus complex as being “abstract, impersonal and non-historical” (Freud, p.236). This disagreement led to increasingly fractious dialogue between the pair that in turn ended their friendship and made Freud increasingly protective of his theories. It can be argued that Freud would not respond as well to any other character, real or fantasy, as he does to Tiresias.
Tiresias embodies the philosophy of Socratic questioning, and Socrates’s view that, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Tiresias is even heard to advise Freud that “I can only speak from my own experience” (Vickers, p.46) and “You’re the expert, Dr Freud. I’m just a humble witness” (Vickers, p.149). Tiresias and Freud are often in disagreement, which leads Tiresias to reveal ever more concrete truths, such as his blinding by Athena at the Castalian spring (Vickers, p.77). Tiresias intends to prove that not everything can be rationalised from Freud’s external perspective and theories.
“The audience [of the ‘Oedipus’] have a godlike vantage on the action of the play” (Clay, p.12), but Freud doesn’t appreciate the divide. For example, when Tiresias mentions Apollo’s plague, Freud denies the inherent divine nature of the ‘Oedipus’, stating “it was a mortally contagious virus passed on through inadequate hygiene” (Vickers, p.115). Tiresias does not correct Freud but continues, through his story, to prove what the Athenians knew “when they returned to the life of their city and the [very real] plague that was ravaging Athens” (Clay, p.15): Freud has taken a divine fiction and attempted to remove the gods.
Tiresias phrases his response, towards the end of their dialogue, by telling Freud he’d missed the point of Sophocles’s play, stating “here in all the world was the one person you could safely say didn’t have an Oedipus complex you dreamed up for him. He was Oedipus, plain Oedipus” (Vickers, p.169).
Tiresias is the right choice to correct Freud’s thinking due to his polite, challenging manner and for his perspective from being at the centre of the events of the ‘Oedipus’. He does so without riling Freud. Just as Tiresias succeeds in voicing his opinion where Jung failed, he is best suited out of all the characters of the ‘Oedipus’ to state it. Jocasta would be reliant upon Freud since the crime of the ‘Oedipus’ is perpetrated against her. Her realisation, as Tiresias reports to Freud, is filled with grief and denial: “For the gods’ sake, Oedipus, drop it, let the man go!” (Vickers, p.153). Oedipus could argue, as he does in the ‘Oedipus’, against the Oedipus complex because he is able to separate out the responsibilities of the gods from himself: “It was Apollo, always Apollo, who brought each of my agonies to birth, but I, nobody else, I… I stabbed out these eyes” (Sophocles, 1732), but Oedipus is overcome with the hindsight that has revealed his fall.
As author of the ‘Oedipus’, Sophocles would have made a worthy counterpoint to Freud, for even though he has Jocasta say, “Many men have slept with their mothers in their dreams” (Sophocles, 1238), he is rightly placed to discuss the purpose and reasoning behind the metaphors. Freud could still argue against Sophocles, citing the author’s subconscious yearnings: “It was castration,” Freud declares of Oedipus’ blinding and it is Tiresias who can honestly explain, “Had Oedipus seen fit to castrate himself, believe me he would have done so” (Vickers, p.176).
Tiresias has the benefit of standing in both realities: Freud’s and the ‘Oedipus’. He can relate the mind of Sophocles and, when he states to Oedipus “You don’t see how much alike we are” (Sophocles, 458), he shows that he shares a “fixity of disposition” with Oedipus (Clay, p.104). This disposition exists both when Oedipus and Tiresias first meet and afterwards when Oedipus has fulfilled the Sphinx’s riddle and becomes as physically blind as Tiresias. Finally, Tiresias can reveal the ironies: as Oedipus says, “It is frightening – can the blind prophet see, can he really see?” (Sophocles, 979).
“To put it otherwise, there is always another way at the crossroads” (Vickers, p.126) says Tiresias, alluding to the metaphor of the junction on the road to Phokis where Oedipus kills his father, King Laios, and the title of Vickers’s novella ‘Where Three Roads Meet’. In resolving the fallout between Freud and Jung, Vickers is proposing through Tiresias the theory that the act of knowing a possible future limits our choices. From within Freud’s subconscious, Tiresias is able to circumvent Freud’s unwillingness to accept that he has afforded too much significance to the Oedipus complex. Since Freud has adopted the role of patient, lying upon his own analyst’s couch, Tiresias is free to reflect the reality of the Oedipus myth and to direct Freud to the conclusion that others, from Jung to Vickers, have reached, whilst not forcing him to accept it. True to the role of analyst that Tiresias adopts, he does not judge but resolves to lead Freud to the truth.