Excerpted from After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson. Copyright © 2005 by A.N. Wilson. Published in November, 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Kaiser
In 1900 there was published in Vienna one of the most extraordinary and revolutionary texts ever to come from a human brain. Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) expounded the theory on which all subsequent psychoanalysis was based, even or especially those psychoanalytical theories which reacted most violently against it: namely, that the human mind consists of what might be described as two layers. With the outer layer, of our conscious mind, we reason and form judgements. In reasonable, well-balanced individuals, the pains and sorrows of childhood have been worked through, put behind them. With the unhealthy, however, neurotic or hysterical individuals, there is beneath the surface of life a swirling cauldron of suppressed memories in which lurk the traumas (the Greek word for wounds) of early experiences. Under hypnosis, or in dreams, we re-enter the world of the subconscious and with the care of a helpful analyst we can sometimes revisit the scenes of our early miseries and locate the origins of our psychological difficulties. The author of this world-changing book, Dr Sigmund Freud (1856—1939), was a happily married neurologist, born in the Moravian town of Freiberg, but for most of his life resident in Vienna, hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his consulting room in Berggasse 19, Vienna IX (from 1931), and his celebrated couch, on which patients lay to recite their sorrows, became a totemic emblem of the century which was to unfold. The need to return to some forgotten, irrational, dark place of our lost past became compelling, personal and collective, as the hysteria of the twentieth century reached its crescendo-point and as Dr Freud, a Jew, though a non-believing one, packed his belongings and took his family to live in London for the last year of his life, following the Anschluss, the joining together of Germany and Austria into a Great Germany, Grossdeutschland. He had already had the honour of having his books burned in Berlin in 1933, and in 1938 they were burned in Vienna.
On the publication of Die Traumdeutung, there were many people who, if not actually tempted to burn the book, must have found its contents shocking.
If Oedipus the King is able to move modern man no less deeply than the Greeks who were Sophocles’ contemporaries, the solution can only be that the effect of Greek tragedy does not depend on the contrast between fate and human will, but is to be sought in the distinctive nature of the subject-matter exemplifying this contrast. There must be a voice within us that is ready to acknowledge the compelling force of fate in Oedipus…His fate moves us only because it could have been our own as well, because at our birth the oracle pronounced the same curse upon us as it did on him. It was perhaps ordained that we should all of us turn our first sexual impulses towards our mother, our first hatred and violent wishes against our father. Our dreams convince us of it. King Oedipus, who killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, is only the fulfilment of our childhood wish. But, more fortunate than he, we have since succeeded, at least insofar as we have not become psychoneurotics, in detaching our sexual impulses from our mothers, and forgetting our jealousy of our fathers.1
Dr Freud, further, told his Vienna lecture audiences: ‘The dream of having sexual intercourse with the mother is dreamed by many today as it was then, and they recount it with the same indignation and amazement [as Oedipus].’2
Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, succeeded his mother Queen Victoria upon her death at half-past six in the evening on 22 January 1901, and became King Edward VII. He had waited a long time. ‘Most people pray to the Eternal Father,’ he had quipped, ‘but I am the only one afflicted with an Eternal Mother.’ If he ever had dreams about his mother of the kind believed by Dr Freud to be so usual, he did not record them for posterity. Queen Victoria did, however, believe that Bertie, as he was always known in his own family, in effect achieved half of the Oedipal destiny by killing his father, Prince Albert.
An indiscretion with an actress, Nellie Clifden, at the Curragh Camp near Dublin had brought Bertie’s name into the newspapers, and his serious German father, embarrassed, angry and distressed, had gone to Cambridge, where Bertie was an undergraduate, to remonstrate with him during a wet evening in November 1861. A bad cold had turned to fever, and within a few weeks the doctors had diagnosed typhoid, almost certainly caused by the drains at Windsor Castle, one of the Prince Consort’s obsessions, and hardly to be blamed on poor Bertie. Nevertheless, it was, from the very first moment of her widow’s grief, one of the Queen’s obsessions that Bertie’s ‘fall’ had caused ‘beloved Papa’s demise’, aged forty-two.
‘Poor unhappy Bertie,’ wrote the distraught mother a few weeks after Albert died, to Bertie’s elder sister, the Crown Princess of Prussia, ‘much as I pity I never can or shall look at him without a shudder as you may imagine’.3 And again: ‘If you had seen [your husband] struck down, day by day get worse and finally die, I doubt whether you could bear the sight of the one who was the cause.’4
By the time he inherited his kingdom, Edward VII was fifty-nine years old; at 67 inches high, he weighed 225 pounds. In some outward terms, he was not an obvious case of a man who bore any resentment of his upbringing by parents who had clearly deplored in equal measure his limitations of intellect and his lack of morals. For example, at a public dinner, when mentioning his father, he had burst into tears.
The speed with which he dismantled any physical reminders of his parents, however, tells its own story. In Windsor Castle, and in Buckingham Palace, the new monarch walked about cheerfully with a cigar stuck between his lips, Caesar, his long-haired white fox terrier,5 trotting at his heels, his hat still on his head as he cleared out and destroyed his father’s and mother’s memory. In these rooms, where smoking had always been forbidden, the obese, bronchitic king coughed, puffed smoke and gave orders that hundreds of ‘rubbishy old coloured photographs’ be destroyed. Busts and statues of John Brown, his mother’s faithful Highlander, were smashed; the papers of the Munshi, Queen Victoria’s beloved Indian servant, were burned. The huge collection of relics of the Prince Consort, undisturbed since his untimely death forty years earlier, was sent to the muniment room in Windsor’s Round Tower. While getting rid of his parents’ old rubbish, he also took the opportunity to extend the telephone networks, install new bathrooms and lavatories, and to convert coach houses into garages for the cars of his nouveaux riches friends. ‘Alas!’ Queen Alexandra wrote to Edward VII’s sister, now the Empress Frederick, in Berlin. ‘During my absence, Bertie has had all your beloved Mother’s rooms dismantled and all her precious things removed.’
The most significant of the new king’s anti-parental gestures was his decision to close Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and make it, jointly, a Royal Naval College for young cadets and a convalescent home for retired officers. There is an apocryphal story told at Osborne of a visitor coming down the drive in the 1920s and seeing twenty or thirty elderly gentlemen of military or naval deportment, some in bath chairs and covered with plaid rugs, some strolling on the lawn. The visitor was waggishly told: ‘Those are the Prince Consort’s illegitimate children!’ It would not be funny if, instead of referring to the priggishly monogamous Albert, the joker had claimed the old gentlemen to be children of the notoriously lecherous Edward VII. What the joke points up is the fact that the Prince Consort’s real children were no longer there in the Italian palazzo which he had so lovingly built in the 1840s. It was where the distraught queen had spent the greater part of her long widowhood, and it was where she had died.
As the old queen lay dying in January 1901, Henry James, wisest of commentators, had written from his London club, the Reform, to American friends:
I feel as if her death will have consequences in and for this country that no man can foresee. The Prince of Wales is an arch-vulgarian (don’t repeat this from me); the wretched little ‘Yorks’ are less than nothing; the Queen’s magnificent duration had held things magnificently—beneficently—together and prevented all sorts of accidents. Her death, in short, will let loose incalculable forces for possible ill. I am very pessimistic.6
To another American, when the queen had actually died, he wrote:
We grovel before fat Edward—E. The Caresser, as he is privately named…But I mourn the safe and motherly old middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous, Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent. I fear her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol—and the wild waters are upon us now.7
James bids his compatriots to mourn Victoria, ‘for she was always nice to us’.8 His novelistic antennae caught, as political commentary might have failed to do, the vulnerability of the most powerful nation upon Earth, at the apogee of its pre-eminence.