Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Embodying Disillusionment: Poussin's Blinded Giants

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Embodying Disillusionment: Poussin's Blinded Giants

Article excerpt

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown (Genesis 6:4)1

The giant is an archetypal and nearly universal element of indigenous myth. Often the hybrid offspring of divine fathers and mortal mothers, the most familiar giants in the Western canon of Greek, Norse and Biblical legend maintain a human appearance and mortality, but have god-like powers, as specified by their great size and physical might. Curiously, giants are almost always men-indeed, they are hypermasculine: brawny, muscular and hirsute-and yet are typically rendered vulnerable by the women in their narratives.

Greek mythology tells that at the dawn on the world, a race of earthly giants succumbed to the gods in the great battle known as the Gigantomachy. Near the beginning of Ovid's epic poetic narrative of the classical myths of transformation, the Metamorphoses (Ovid, 2004)2, its author explains that these giants of ill-described lineage "brought together mountains in a heap and piled them up to reach the lofty stars" so as to attack the divinities in their heavenly residence. They were greeted by "the omnipotent father," Jove, who "launched a bolt that shattered Mount Olympus at its base, and [the island] Pelion came crashing down from Ossa," slaughtering them:

When their enormous corpses all lay crushed

beneath the great weight of each other's bodies,

their Mother Earth (or so the story goes)

drenched with their streaming gore, gave life to it;

and lest no memory at all remain

of her offspring, she gave them human shape;

her stock was marked by hatred of the gods,

by cruelty and readiness for slaughter:

you would have recognized their bloody nature. (Met I. 208-221)

"So the story goes," the old giants give rise to a race of new giants; dying from their effort to defeat the gods, they are granted new life. This story inaugurates the trope of man's misplaced divine strivings, situated within the theme of succession; in Greek legend, at least, a succession inscribed with hostility that seeds the giants with hatred -for their presumed fathers, the gods, but also for Mother Earth, who "gave them human shape" in order to destroy their ancestry, "lest no memory at all remain / of her offspring." Their origins, vanished and forgotten, their savage "bloody nature" betrays this hostile legacy. With an immensity of form and power, the giant is a bridge between man and the gods that man aspires to be; with an appetite unfettered by civilisation, he is at the same time a bridge between man and the animal that man aspires not to be, personifying the bestial desires and impulses that betray man's humanity. Anchored in a cloudy prehistory marred by an indeterminate paternity, the giant also affords a bridge between father and son: born of vanquished giants, he is himself destined to be vanquished, a cyclical annihilation and rebirth that speaks to an ancient thread of succession that links men to their fathers and beyond, travelling back through the generations to the origins of mankind: there were giants in the earth in those days (Genesis 6:4). The giant is, thus, the very embodiment of return, a superb allegorical vehicle of memory; of great and savage beginnings, and of catastrophic endings; and of perpetual longing for the past (Cohen 1999). As such, they embody the seismic reverberations of the apres-coup.

This effort completes a series of essays that seek a deeper understanding of the classical narratives of transformation, and which develop an interdisciplinary approach to myth, informed not only by psychoanalytic theory, but also on the enduring, if not yet fully articulated insights of literary and aesthetic interpretation. In particular, I have enlisted Ovid's poeticisation of classical myth, the Metamorphoses, as well as their visual representation by a foremost Ovidian interpreter, the seicento master Nicolas Poussin. …

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