Thursday, 20 November 2014

Freud's Roman Slip

“Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent.”

Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”

^Roman Rorschach 01

Rome is an artificial intelligence of the highest order, an ancient mind so vast no one writer or researcher has been able to comprehend any but the tiniest manifestation of its intelligence, anything but the most circumscribed, delimited moment in the awe inspiring depths of its oceanic memory.

It is a fathomless and traumatised intellect that has suffered at various moments in its life haemorrhage, stroke, dementia, concussion, it has had the most brutal and retrograde forms of surgery enacted upon it, trepanning and lobotomy, electro-shock and torture, but it has always recovered, rebuilt itself, re-connected whatever dots were left to hold on to a sense of self, radically altered as that may have been, again, and again, and again.

^Roman Rotate 01

Rome suffers the terrifying fate of the immortal who is destined to repeatedly outlive every individual and every era that he loves, who is doomed to remember even if only partially things he is desperate to forget, a consciousness fated to forever exist in a present that is only half as real as moments that burned themselves into its mind a thousand years ago.

It has seen, understood, experienced, lost, achieved and attempted so much that there isn’t the slightest trace of cynicism in its gaze. Everything is equal and not good nor bad, it all just is. Rome is tender towards the frivolous, fleeting, involved passions it is always encompassing. It can no longer judge anything or anyone, after having seen the failure and the success, the condemnation and celebration of each and every kind of whim imaginable. One moment an idea is lauded, the next it is deplored.

But the mind in its own way is also forever young. It cleans itself out occasionally. It sometimes forgets, briefly. It looks in envy at those whom it encloses with their beautiful illusions, their lightness, beliefs and certainties. There are moments at any age when each of us is swept up in some excitement and looks again to be in the full blush of youth.

^Roman Rotate 02

Rome is sometimes as delighted by new things as a child. It is sometimes as taken with new notions as a teenager who has been swept up in a holiday romance, falling in love like it has never happened before with temples, tombs, forums, basilicas, catacombs, monasteries, pilgrims, churches, villas, axes, factories, trains, ministries and parliaments, monuments, motorways, museums, tourists, subways, suburbs, airports, shopping centres, office parks…

It has a deep memory, yes, but its extraordinary capacity for reordering itself, for learning, for comprehending, digesting and even constructing the present is directly proportional to the depth of its past. Rome’s physical memory is also its processing power.

St Peter’s, the Vittoriano, Termini, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Aurelian walls, EUR, the villa Albani, these are all not only vast databanks of information-storage in stone and steel, they are also macro-processors, huge, unwieldy, but incomparably reliable machines that turn the past into pure computing power with which to manage the present. Rome brings to bear the entire vigour of its singular history, with all its accumulated knowledge and sensibilities, on every contemporary situation it faces. The past here is the antithesis of heritage; it is the very substance, the very means, the base material and energy of change itself.

"It is clearly pointless to spin out this fantasy any further: the result would be unimaginable, indeed absurd. If we wish to represent a historical sequence in spatial terms, we can do so only by juxtaposition in space, for the same space cannot accommodate two different things. Our attempt to do otherwise seems like an idle game"

Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”

Freud’s supposedly absurd metaphor was more apt than anyone might have ever imagined.

^Roman Rorschach 02

“Having overcome the error of thinking that our frequent forgetfulness amounts to the destruction of the trace left by memory and therefore to an act of annihilation, we now tend towards the opposite presumption -- that, in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost, that everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances -- for instance, through a sufficiently long regression. Let us try to understand, with the help of an analogy from another field, what this presumption implies. As an example let us take the development of the Eternal City. Historians tell us that in the earliest times Rome was Roma quadrata, an enclosed settlement on the Palatine Hill. The next phase was the Septimontium, a union of the settlements on the separate hills. After this it was the city bounded by the Servian Wall, and still later, after all the vicissitudes of the republican and the early imperial age, the city that the emperor Aurelian enclosed within his walls. We will not pursue the further transformations undergone by the city, but we cannot help wondering what traces of these early stages can still be found by a modern visitor to Rome -- whom we will credit with the best historical and topographical knowledge. He will see Aurelian's wall virtually unchanged, save for a few gaps. Here and there he will find stretches of the Servian wall that have been revealed by excavations. Because he commands enough knowledge -- more than today's archaeologists -- to be able to trace the whole course of this wall and enter the outlines of Roma quadrata in a modern city plan . Of the buildings that once occupied this ancient framework he will find nothing, or only scant remains, for they no longer exist. An extensive knowledge of the Roman republic might at most enable him to say where the temples and public buildings of that period once stood. Their sites are now occupied by ruins -- not of the original buildings, but of various buildings that replaced them after they burnt down or were destroyed. One need hardly add that all these remnants of ancient Rome appear as scattered fragments in the jumble of the great city that has grown up in recent centuries, since the Renaissance. True, much of the old is still there, but buried under modern buildings. This is how the past survives in historic places like Rome.

Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent. For Rome this would mean that on the Palatine hill the imperial palaces and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus still rose to their original height, that the castle of San Angelo still bore on its battlements the fine statues that adorned it until the Gothic siege. Moreover, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus would once more stand on the site of the Palazzo Caffarelli, without there being any need to dismantle the latter structure, and indeed the temple would be seen not only in its later form, which it assumed during the imperial age, but also in its earliest, when it still had Etruscan elements and was decorated with terracotta antefixes. And where the Coliseo now stands we could admire the vanished Domus Aurea of Nero; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the present Pantheon, bequeathed by Hadrian, but the original structure of M. Agrippa; indeed, occupying the same ground would be the church of Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it is built. And the observer would perhaps need only to shift his gaze or his position in order to see the one or the other.”

Extract from Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”



Civilisation and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, Kindle Edition

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