Mass media entertainment gives the word “reality” a real hammering. Hammering provides a useful metaphor. One of the ways the empirically minded commonly assert the incontrovertible reality of the world is to thump on something solid.
Catching up with just 15 minutes of the BAFTA winning “structured reality” tv show The Only Way is Essex (ITV2) (“The tans are fake but the people are real”) has the same effect as head banging.
But human relationships, the stuff of reality tv, however frothed up, are inevitably complicit in definitions of reality.
I re-visited the Parthenon recently, and remembered what Sigmund Freud said about it. In his essay “A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis,” Freud recalled the first journey he took out of Austria with his brother, during which, due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to change their plans and were unexpectedly able to visit Athens. Both had always wanted to visit Athens, but rather than fill them with delight the prospect plunged them both into depression.
The following day, when they arrived in Athens and stood on the Acropolis, Freud remarked: “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” (p.449).
Freud links the depression of the previous day to his declaration of the removal of doubt in the reality of the Acropolis: “the actual situation on the Acropolis contained an element of doubt of reality.”
By his account, as a child, Freud had never doubted that the Acropolis existed, only that he should ever see it, constrained as he was by his parents’ limited income. Freud equated seeing the Acropolis in his own case with running away from home, a common childhood fantasy. Why was he depressed the day before?
It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way: there was something about it that was wrong, that from earliest times had been forbidden. It was something to do with the 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 success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden.
This is also the stuff of Greek tragedy, particularly Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. And so from Freud follows a pleasingly twisted argument about reality, or at least our search for reality. In keeping with Freud’s perennial themes, exclamations about the rock-solid, incontrovertible reality of a thing are accompanied by guilt, problems with authority, and childhood trauma.
Trauma, guilt, family relationships, memories, depression, disturbance: soaps and reality tv capture something of what it is to be real and to pursue the real. No less an authority than Freud asserts as much.
As a coda: Like the dramas of life, soaps get repeated. The Parthenon also repeats. The new Acropolis museum, by architect Bernard Tschumi, at the foot of the Acropolis has a true-to-scale, stylized, simplified replica of the Parthenon on the top floor, oriented in the same way, and with a view to the original Parthenon. A week after my own re-visit to the Acropolis I happened to be passing by the British Museum in London, and so had another look at the Parthenon, in fragments, reconstructed, virtualised, and with a story that links it back to the plunder of the original. Back in Edinburgh I saw similar fragments, as plaster casts, in the Sculpture court of Edinburgh College of Art, and then in the corridors of the University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology.
Reality seems to depend on repetition and reproduction to assert itself, whether it’s a place, building, sculpture, visitor experience, identity or tan. One day I’ll see if Essex really exists.
- Freud, Sigmund. 1991. A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. In A. Richards (ed.), The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 11: On Metapsychology: 443-456. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. (First published in German in 1936.)
Note [added 2 April 2014]
- I’ve just caught up with Loens Holm’s book in which he explores the response of Le Corbusier to a similar encounter (to Freud) on the Acropolis 7 years later. See Holm, Lorens. 2010. Brunelleschi, Lacan, Le Corbusier: Architecture, Space and the Construction of Subjectivity. London: Routledge, pp.189-191. Holm also says, “A good bump on the head puts everything in perspective.” p.192.