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Sensing the place of religious myth

19 November 2007

Rachel Harden interviews Salley Vickers

SALLEY VICKERS, author and psychoanalyst, believes we all spring into our opposites. She contrasts her experience with that of Richard Dawkins. His parents were devout Christians, yet he is the best-selling author of The God Delusion; she writes about religion (but does not like to be called a religious writer) and loves the Bible because her parents were passionate Communists who refused to have one in the house.

Her new book, Where Three Roads Meet, is a plea for what she describes as the middle way: she wants to show there can be different perspectives on the same reality. “The rational and irrational have their place. One of the things that has interested me in the Dawkins debate is the notion of what reality consists of.”

Her book deals with the Greek myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, fathering her children — his siblings. Where Three Roads Meet describes how a mysterious visitor from ancient Greece calls on Sigmund Freud in his dying months. It is set partly in pre-war London, and partly in ancient Greece, centred on Delphi.

Naturally, the subject for discussion between the two is the Oedipus myth and Freud’s interpretation of it — what has been termed the Oedipus complex, whereby children (generally the boy) see the father as a rival for the exclusive affection of the mother.

It may not sound seasonal, but Ms Vickers says all the elements of the Christmas story are there: “It is about a baby who is not exactly crucified, but suffered an enormous trauma and came through. I think it is very much a Christmas story.”

Readers are treated to some historical insights into the last year of Freud’s life (the Nazis allowed him and his immediate family to flee to England in 1938, as they were concerned about public opinion, although his four sisters died in concentration camps). His eventual death from cancer of the mouth was drawn out and extremely painful. The reader becomes aware of the link between his morphine-induced sleep and the arrival of the Greek visitor Tiresias, a blind seer who plays with Freud’s idea that dreams are part of reality.

This could be construed as a departure from the author’s usual genre. She is best known for her novels, Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday, followed last year by The Other Side of You — all featuring fictional characters set against a backdrop of familiar places (Venice, Dartmoor, and Rome). She also wrote the highly acclaimed Instances of the Number Three, which has been described as being in the classic tradition of English ghost stories, and is linked with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ms Vickers admits this book has a slightly different style from her others (it is part of a series where contemporary writers have been asked to take a myth and re-present it in their own way). “But I don’t see it as a departure from my other books, as it deals with the same sorts of ideas. It is about a different perspective on reality. All of my books have a strong mythical element, and have dealt with the question of what is reality.

“I would not have done it if I had not been allowed to do Oedipus.” She says that Sophocles’s play about Oedipus is the only serious version we have of the myth from antiquity, although Homer does make a reference.

Hers are not glib observations, as she has worked as a university teacher of literature, specialising in Shakespeare, and taught in adult education, where she specialised in the literature of the ancient world.

She is also direct when asked about the point of the book, apart from, she hopes, that of entertaining the reader. “The whole point is to counter Freud’s reading of the Oedipus myth. His was a fundamental misreading, as he projected his own ideas. His interpretation is about infantile sex; yet Oedipus is a grown man when he beds his mother: Freud’s interpretation does not really work.”

This theme unfolds slowly throughout the book. The author cleverly reverses the roles: Freud ends up on the couch, being analysed by Tiresias. But her aim is not to put Freud down, as, without him, the myth would never have been given such prominence by such a great mind, she says.

“The essence of my re-interpretation of the myth is not so much about infantile desire and sex, but a mother’s or parents’ potential to damage their children. In the myth, Oedipus’s natural parents try to put him to death by putting stakes through his baby feet and leaving him to die, before he is rescued and brought up by others.

“But this is the area of the myth that Freud overlooks. It is about not knowing who we are — that is the really interesting thing. Oedipus pursues who he is at enormous cost to himself, and he pursues this against all advice to stop.”

Despite the book’s treatment of reality, it has a strong sense of place. “I do the same research with all my books, and visit the place. I have got to know Delphi very well. It is very important for the physical to be well-observed, as I am writing about the immaterial.”

SHE SAYS she is regularly asked how long it takes her to write a book. “I have been writing this one for 30 years in one way, but it actually only took me 18 months. You get to know your characters. Writers do not make them up — they come to you. It is like getting to know a new friend or child or lover. They unfold themselves.

“One of the terrible things is that you have to say goodbye. Even the characters like Tiresias and Freud get very fond of one another, although they have completely different world-views.”

As she wrote, she says, the book unfolded from day to day. “I did not know what was going to happen, but I always have a back story, which I will know very well, and, in this case, it was the myth of Oedipus. It is a fabulous story, with elements of patricide, infanticide, incest, suicide, and self-annihilation.

“Oedipus does not know anything about himself, but the audience does know — they are in the position of the gods. There is this dreadful tension: his pressing on and finding this terrible truth about himself. You feel the audience want to shout ‘Don’t go there.’”

For the author, the greatest thing about religion, whether Christian or not, is that it should encourage us to believe we are not gods. “Once people believe they can direct their fate, then you are in real trouble, and can be perverted — as seen in education and parenting. Religion at its best helps us to see we are not God. God is other.”

SALLEY VICKERS is now a consultant for the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, and is also working on a project on the Book of Common Prayer. Her observations on the situation in the Anglican Communion (“and any religion with extreme aspects”) is that extremists believe they are right, and that is their problem. “They should take advice from Socrates, who says ‘As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.’” She has great respect for the writings and sermons of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Like most authors, Ms Vickers prefers to talk about her books rather than her own life. She says she is enjoying being a young grandmother (she has two grown-up sons), and will spend Christmas with four generations, as her father is still alive.

Christmas is an important season for her, and she brought her family up to enjoy the midnight eucharist. “I think there is something very special about this time that seems to touch the believer and unbeliever.”

She never uses family or friends for her characters, but often draws on her own experience. In an author’s note at the end of Mr Golightly’s Holiday, she describes how the book arose “out of a period of turmoil in my own life”. She set aside the book she had been working on because of her own “personal drama”, and Mr Golightly emerged.

She admits writing is a lonely life, but would not have it any other way. “There are no colleagues, but, on the other hand, it is what I most want to do.”

Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers (Canongate, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84195986-3) is reviewed here

To place an order for this book, email details to the Church Times bookshop at CTBookshop@shineonline.net


To place an order for this book, email details to the Church Times bookshop at CTBookshop@shineonline.net


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