What if the gods of Greek myth had parallels with Freud’s notion of the unconscious? This is just one idea explored in Brian Aldiss’s sassy retelling of the stories of two prominent women of Thebes. In two novellas, Jocasta, Wife and Mother and Antigone, Aldiss puts both women and their emotional lives centre-stage, as they grapple with events familiar to us from mythology and the plays of Sophocles.
Jocasta in particular is presented to us as on the cusp of two worlds, embedded in a lusty and violent culture governed by animal instincts, yet deeply thoughtful and curious about her own feelings. Her bawdy grandmother Semele hobnobs with the spirit world, her son Polynices talks dirty with his sister Antigone as they frolic in the sea and her husband/son Oedipus crushes dissent, kills the Sphinx and generally digs himself into ever deeper holes. Yet, plagued by guilt, Jocasta begins to question the prevailing wisdom of her time — that we are merely playthings of the gods.
There are enjoyable hints of the psychoanalytic leanings to come. The book’s funniest scenes are between Jocasta and a somewhat smug apparition of Sophocles. He tells her that far from being a real person, she is simply a character in a successful play of his (‘a rather weak hinge in the carefully constructed plot’), a revelation which brings out Jocasta’s paranoia, her narcissism (she wants to know if he has drawn her as noble) and a touching insecurity — ‘I suppose Semele’s in your play too?’
Increasingly, Jocasta feels compelled to pay attention to her repressed crime of incest. Freud coined the term Oedipus complex to illustrate a common psychological phenomenon, that of small boys adoring their mothers and wishing on some level to destroy their rival, their father. Aldiss unpicks the Jocasta complex, of women so adoring of their sons and ambivalent towards their husbands that they focus on ‘rescuing’ their sons and giving priority to self-gratification.
Using a motley crew of slaves, guards and a random shepherd, the story of Oedipus killing his true father Laius and having sex with his true mother Jocasta is bit by bit revealed to Oedipus’s family and the citizens of Thebes, accompanied by much breast-beating, spells, premonitions and deaths. It’s not quite a literary episode of EastEnders, complete with allusions to Keats, Shakespeare and Sartre, but it comes pretty close and is all the more engaging for it.
The civic chaos segues into the second novella, in which Antigone’s desire to see tyranny challenged and her brother buried finds an echo in the life of theatre director Jon Rahman Karimov, sentenced to death for staging a production of Oedipus Rex. On his final night alive, Karimov in his dreams visits Antigone and tries to help alter her destiny. Of course there aren’t gods, weighing us down, advises Aldiss. It’s about being true to yourself and paying attention to your shadow side.
Except that would be almost too easy. Known chiefly for his science fiction, a sceptical Aldiss shows that there are messier things in the universe than might be dreamt of by us mere mortals. In trying to make sense of life, we used to use myths and now interpret dreams. Who is to say which technique is better or more helpful, if either?
Certainly Aldiss is too shrewd a writer to be explicit, leaving his book (like the myths, plays and stories before his own) open to interpretation. In writing as in life, character is all. Aldiss never allows his wry observations to diminish his compassion for characters as flawed as we are.
Playful and smart, this is a book which celebrates the very essence of life: the survival instinct.
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