Constantinos Kollias: Acropolis, Parthenon and Erechtheion viewed from Filopappou Hill, Athens, 2020 (Unsplash)

by Douglas Penick

All of us, as life draws towards its end, are waiting. This feeling of waiting pervades the subliminal atmosphere in almost all our remembering, our thinking, our desires. We do not know, of course, what we can look forward to. We can neither accelerate nor retard what is going to happen, in our life or upon our death. We are apprehensive and curious. This attentiveness and uncertainty come subtly to pervade everything.

Last night, I went with my wife and a friend to hear the prodigally gifted pianist, Daniil Trifonov. While the playing itself was always overwhelming, in the first part of his programme, neither the pieces nor his way of rendering them was particularly persuasive or even pleasant. In the second half of the programme, he played Brahms’ 3rd Piano Sonata (op.5), which he performed with genuine conviction. He played with varied attack, a great dynamic range and a polished tone with great sheen. I was completely absorbed, but partly I was simultaneously hearing a performance of the same piece played by a very different artist whose deep bronze sonority focused on an unfolding of the sonata’s chordal structure. This was the first concert I ever went to; the pianist was Dame Myra Hess, and though it was almost 70 years ago, her performance remained completely alive in my memory. Now, I could hear both her in my memory and the much younger Trifonov in the auditorium essentially at the same time. Almost every note of this tumultuous sonata had remained with me and now anchored a double hearing, one long gone, the other present.

Obviously, our make-up does not require that only a single strand can be present in our mind at one time. Some streams of consciousness may come to the fore as others recede. Sitting in a restaurant, we can simultaneously smell perfume while we’re eating seafood, listening to a joke, sensing an argument behind us, having a slight cramp in our leg, noticling a waiter look our way, remembering how much our mother and father liked this place. Our experience of any moment is in fact the weaving of many strands, and as we live through the day, hundreds of thousands of strands from the present and the past — desires, thoughts, emotions — all interact in constantly varying proportions. We take care to recognise patterns of coincidence and divergence. It is our pleasure, our control, in a situation that is always on the verge of chaos.

For a long time, Sigmund Freud’s last essay, “A Disturbance of Memory on The Acropolis” has flickered in and out of my memory. It’s remained clear and I’ve occasionally described it to others. It still sometimes brings me to tears. The essay describes a trip to Greece which Freud took as a young man. Inspired by his classical studies, he longed to see the Acropolis. His father, a practical merchant, objected. It was a waste of time and money; he didn’t see the point. Freud and his brother persisted. Afterwards, Freud could remember the journey clearly in all its details, but he could never remember seeing the Acropolis. His brother remembered it vividly; Freud knew he must have seen it.

Freud returned to this moment of forgetting very near the end of his life when he was tormented by a prosthetic jaw he needed since bone cancer had destroyed his natural one. He was living in London with his daughter, Anna. They had been brought there from Vienna by Princess Marie Bonaparte who had ransomed them from the Nazis. His father was long dead and the cultured world of European Jews lay ravaged.

In his essay, he reflected extensively on similar incidents in medical history and literature, as he worked to search for the meaning of this odd occurrence. Finally, he concluded that he had blocked out seeing this great monument because it would have meant so very little to his father. Freud ends his memoir-analysis saying that he finally understood this forgetting was induced by filial piety. And this was especially poignant to him for now — as I recalled him writing — that he was “old, and ill and will travel no more.” [1]

Entrance to the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 1905

I wrote this account based on my memory, but to prepare for writing my upcoming book, I re-read the essay for the first time in decades. It pained me to realise that the specific distortion is not quite as I remembered it with such confidence. Freud did remember seeing the Acropolis, but reacted to the monument by thinking: “So, all this really does exist!”[2] On recollection, he was astounded that he once doubted such a thing. It was this doubt, this double consciousness involved in simultaneously doubting and not doubting that puzzled him. In his essay, he does attribute this to the kind of filial piety I recall. He ends: ‘I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and will travel no more.”[3]

For Freud, the original distortion was caused by filial piety, his guilt at persisting in doing something his father found of no value. It expressed the conflict between an orthodox father and sons who were so enthusiastically assimilating themselves into gentile European classical culture. But Freud found himself returning to what might have been a mere psychological hiccup at a time when history placed it in a tragic and terrible light. The world of Freud’s father, that of a Jewish merchant and family man finding acceptance and a haven in Vienna, and that of Freud and his brother, who believed they could fulfil their greatest aspirations in the secular culture of German speaking Central Europe had proved to be a monstrous delusion, a murderous trap.

Thus it was that Freud found the subject of this essay interwoven with the memory of his family’s and all his friends’ and colleagues’ aspirations for a world that could never again be imagined, much less realised, as his siblings were being slaughtered and relatives scattered, as concentration camps and mass murderers were obliterating the cultural landscape of his youth and subsequent fame. The layered density of Freud’s recollection, the methodical way he looked at it, may have allowed him not to be swept away in grief and despair, but it did, perhaps, stand deeply in “need of forbearance”.


[1] Sigmund Freud, Complete Psychological Works, Tr. and ed. James Strachey, vol XXII, Hogarth Press, 1964, p. 241

[2] ibid,p. 248

[3] ibid, p.248

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.

Publication Details

This essay is adapted from the section on Freud in Chapter 2, Linkages in The Winter Sun (forthcoming).

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