Two old men in creased linen jackets are leaning against a glass display case in Sigmund Freud’s old house. The case houses letters from Freud, papers covered in his handwriting. The men are lamenting the travels of their youth, the nine months one spent studying in Rome, the years the other spent doing a PhD at Berkeley. ‘Did I waste my time? I couldn’t take it all in, I feel terrible guilt,’ one says. ‘I was doing what my father had always dreamed of himself,’ the other says with deep sadness.
And it’s all Freud’s fault. The two men are visiting ‘Tracing Freud to the Acropolis’, a small exhibition about Sigmund’s only journey to Greece, at the same time as me. Freud had always dreamed of visiting the Acropolis, idolised it since childhood; it was a place of learning wisdom and intellectual ambition without equal. But once he got there and stood in front of its towering columns, he felt not awe and reverence, but instead ‘a disturbance of memory’. He felt guilt.
Its ideas – the guilt and discomfort of achieving your goals, the pain of ‘filial piety’ – are deeply triggering
His father had been a merchant with no secondary education. And here was Siggy, who’d kept a diary in ancient Greek as a ludicrously precocious child, ascending the steps of the Acropolis as a modern intellectual powerhouse. ‘It seemed to me beyond the realism of possibility that I should have come so far – that I should “go such a long way”’ he wrote decades later. He had superseded his father, and ‘to excel one’s father was still something forbidden’.
‘Satisfaction is the death of desire’, as a great philosopher (the American hardcore band Hatebread) once said. But there’s more than death in the satisfaction of Freud’s desire to see the Acropolis. There’s guilt, pain and regret too.
There are no photos of Freud’s trip here, but there are ancient Greek objects he collected, like a little bronze figurine of Athena he liked so much he had Princess Marie Bonaparte smuggle it out of Vienna for him in 1938. There are amazing little clay moulds too, votive reliefs, old Roman jewellery. It’s more of a small display than an exhibition, and that’s a shame. But its ideas – the guilt and discomfort of achieving your goals, the pain of ‘filial piety’ – are deeply triggering. It turns your eye inwards, makes you reimagine your own past, forces you to consider what your own Acropolis is, just as it did for those two old academics in their linen suits. Freud would be pretty pleased with that.