The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
1899, Vienna and the Congo:
The Art of Darkness

Vassiliki Kolocotroni

On 21 April 1896, Dr Sigmund Freud presented his recent findings on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna, beginning with an explication of his new diagnostic method:

I should like to bring before you an analogy taken from an advance that has in fact been made
in another field of work.

Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an
expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced
and unreadable inscriptions. He may content himself with inspecting what lies exposed to
view, with questioning the inhabitants perhaps semi-barbaric people who live in the vicin-
ity, about what tradition tells them of the history and meaning of these archaeological remains,
and with noting down what they tell him and he may then proceed on his journey. But he
may act differently. He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set
the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the
ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.
If his work is crowned with success, the discoveries are self-explanatory: the ruined walls are
part of the ramparts of a palace or a treasure-house; the fragments of columns can be filled out
into a temple; the numerous inscriptions, which, by good luck, may be bilingual, reveal an
alphabet and a language, and, when they have been deciphered and translated, yield
undreamed-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the
monuments were built. Saxa loquuntur! [Stones speak!] (Freud 1962: 192)

The other ‘field of work’ which Freud instances is of course that of archaeology, the dashing endeavour that, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, had yielded so many ‘treasures’ both cultural and scientific. One imagines Freud’s flourish striking a chord with the gathering of cultured Europeans who were his audience that day. Drawn from the senior ranks of the University of Vienna, they would surely have been familiar with such celebrated figures as Heinrich Schliemann, the enterprising German who discovered Troy in the 1870s, and Vienna’s own Emanuel Löwy epigrapher, excavator of Trysa, and the first Professor of Art and Archaeology at the University of Rome. According to one commentator on his work, Freud himself ‘appears to have suffered throughout most of his professional life from a kind of “spade envy” (Armstrong 2005: 112), and to have constructed in his fascination with archaeological success an ‘alternative ego’, ‘a kind of fantasy-figure for an alternative life [he] could vicariously experience’ (Armstrong 2005: 118). Freud’s

-11-

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