Lucy Beresford

Brian Aldiss unpicks the Jocasta complex

A sassy retelling of two women’s stories from Greek mythology

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.

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