Sicily on the Couch

It would no doubt be interesting if one could put an entire region or country on the couch, in psychiatric terms, in order to examine its neuroses and foibles, to highlight where it might be going right or wrong.  In the perpetually dysfunctional world in which we all seem to live, the results would be enlightening, dare we say, wince inducing!

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

In 1910, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, visited Sicily; perhaps without the intention of analysing his hosts, he nonetheless made some curious and thought provoking observations.  At this juncture, we must acknowledge Rosalba Galvagno, who wrote the fascinating article, Freud and Greater Greece, published in Between, November 2011.  For those wishing more detail, seek out her wise words. Rosalba, and others who have written on Freud, have pointed out his love for all things relating to Magna Graecia and it was principally this motivation that drew him to Sicily.

He travelled with Sándor Ferenczi, a fellow proto-psychoanalyst and Hungarianised Polish Jew. Their journey together was prior to the rift that developed over theoretical and practical disagreements. Some fourteen years after visiting Sicily, Ferenczi developed his ‘Thalassa’ theory, detailing the desire to return to the womb as symbolic of a longing to return to our sea-born origins.  Given the intensity of all this navel-gazing, you would be forgiven for thinking that Freud and Ferenczi had no time to smell the metaphorical and literal flowers. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case!

Their itinerary was dictated by the glories of the Classical world, but the pair did allow themselves time to just stop, stare and marvel, like a couple of tourists from modern-day Vienna posing for selfies under the meridional sun. They took in Palermo, Monreale, Segesta, Castelvetrano, Selinunte, Agrigento and the key destination of Syracuse.  Palermo was the starting point, a city that awed the Viennese psychiatrist with its ‘splendour of colours, smells, views’, although given the state of early twentieth century drainage, it seems even Sigmund was capable of putting on his rose-tinted spectacles.

Monreale cloister
The cloister, Monreale

He stayed in the Hotel de France on Piazza Marina, now part of the university, where he was afforded the luxury of a spacious apartment.  He was pleasantly surprised by the accommodation and Palermo – although his throwaway line stating that it was almost like Florence doesn’t really do either city justice.  From the centre, Freud went up to Monreale, the obligatory excursion for anyone interested in culture. He was not oblivious to the risks of travelling, be they partially imagined or partially real. Northern European travellers were prone to conjuring up the phantoms of bloodthirsty bandits ready to kill at the drop of a cappello. His letters to his wife, however, would seem to indicate a somewhat visceral thrill in feeling at peril – analyse that…

He was less impressed by the ‘miserable cart’ rides he had to take in order to reach places like Segesta; yet, as with so many before and after, he was moved by the solitude and isolation of the location. One can imagine Freud and Ferenczi deep in thought before the majestic entrance to Segesta, as the dirt path opens out between the prickly pears to reveal the stunning façade capped by the roofless expanse of sky.

Moving down to Selinunte, he had to stay in nearby Castelvetrano, an experience he immortalised less than flatteringly in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, characterising the name of the town as one of oblivion. The text deals with the famous concept of the Freudian slip, the subconscious erupting into the conscious world through a temporary release of repressed thoughts. Other writers have driven a coach and horses through the universality of this theory; let’s hope Sigmund’s slip was less than Freudian.

Selinunte, however, was another matter, but even there one can hear a tone of reproach – this time self-reproach – maybe he’s enjoying this all too much, indulging the whim of his Siculo-Grecian mania without due consideration for other matters, family included. Well, what’s a good psychoanalyst to do but conclude that it’s just too late to change profession, so he might as well carry on enjoying the moment in contemplative solitude.  You can almost hear the cogs of Freud’s mind making the situation work for him.

After a whistle-stop tour around the sites of Agrigento, he arrived in Syracuse, dogged by the impending approach of the dreaded Sirocco.  Conceivably, he may have even loosened his tie in anticipation. The duo stayed in the Hotel des Étrangers, an establishment that still faces the Arethusa fountain on Ortygia island.  Favourable first impressions, buoyed by a good Muscat wine, faded into the condemnation of a confined and malodorous Ortygia – the rose-tinted spectacles and, indeed, the nose-clips were now off.

Greek Theatre
The Greek Theatre, Syracuse

Unsurprisingly, he was there for Neapolis, the Greco-Roman ‘new town’ on the outskirts of mainland Syracuse. Charmed by the classical allusions of Arethusa’s papyrus strewn spring and attracted by the impending visit to Neapolis, Freud was, nevertheless, being dragged down by the weather; one can hear portent in his words: ‘overwhelming’, ‘muffled’, ‘disturbing’.  He took to the museum to relieve his tension, viewing a series of female figurines and the same coins that inspired W B Yeats to put Syracusan designs on the pre-Euro coinage of the Republic of Ireland.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the amphitheatre, the theatre or the stone quarries that populated Freud’s dreams but the statue of Archimedes wielding his burning mirror, then located next to his hotel.  Rosalba tells us that Sigmund was dreaming of Archimedes some three weeks after he had initially clapped eyes on the statue.  He also confessed his hedonism was satisfied, by which we can only conclude that he had indulged in sufficient acts of Grecian pilgrimage, rather than having overdone the Marsala and cannoli.

Couch image from Pixabay

Syracuse, though, would have even longer lasting effects on his work.  Rosalba talks about his attraction to the Other Scene, a reference to travel, but also to more profound matters.  It seems he also considered that Sicily held ‘childish memories’, which doesn’t imply infantile behaviour, but a deep connection to the origins of civilisation and even the Oedipal Complex. I’m afraid we can’t square that circle! For Freud, Syracuse was the chance to explore the Other: another culture, another climate, another past, whilst animating his mind with the kind of conversation that would make the average mortal’s head spin.  Ferenczi was his sparring partner, the foil for his ideas.  Galvagno points out that maternal, feminine Syracuse gave the maestro the impetus to finish a work on paranoia and reconcile the Other with deep-seated forbidden desires.  Did Sigmund really see the city as an Oedipal complication personified?  Time for some more analysis.

Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers.  The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.

Sicily: A Literary Guide for TravellersThe Sicilian Defence

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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  1. I loved it. I didn’t know Freud was in Sicily! I read some of his book at school, for sure “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”! I need to read it again and read also the Freud and Greater Greece by Rosalba Galvagno!! Very interesting!!

  2. I did read somewhere of Frued’s travels to Sicily. As to his philosophy, I believe it has influenced many to this day, not all good. We live in a culture where psychiatry often ignores a person’s responsibility for his or her actions. Something else always is responsible, not me. It really ignores the Biblical premise of the soul and God’s Laws. Psychiatry can help if it doesn’t ignore responsibility for one’s actions. It’s like confessing our sins every week and then going on and doing the same things each time! No genuine repentance or healing of the soul!

    • Freud went to SICILY? Never knew THAT. Dozens of invasions no doubt left a mark on the Sicilian psyche. The same could be said for the Ukraine. By the way, here’s a very good book on the Bible and psychiatry. It’s by Dr. Richard Ganz. I was invited to his church once to speak. He’s also a pastor and was once a clinic psychiatrist: “PsychoBabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative.”

      • I will check out that book. You recall that I used “Depression – A Stubborn Darkness” by Edward T. Welch for Sunday School? Ever read this book? Welch is Director of the School of Biblical Counseling and Educational Foundation. He also is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster. Bottom line: we need to say less and listen more. Have not experienced this much at all. Any comments by others on “Sicily on the Couch”?

  3. Freud in Sicilia… Another visitor who only sees the surface of the most beautiful place on earth. In order to get the real feel of Sicily — You must dig in deep… Listen and learn. Finally, you would decide that even four weeks is not enough time to experience what the people and the place are all about. You can’t just do a drive-by when your on the Island… (That is for a view of the leaning Tower of Pisa) I highly recommend an extended stay at Casale Borgia Resort, In the town of Palazzo Adriano, Palermo. A great place to stay and use as your base-camp. Even in the five weeks of my stay… It only let’s you dig into
    the surface of a great Island.

    • What did you learn in your time in Sicily? I highly recommend the book “Sicily – A Captive Land” by Mary Rose Liverani. This deals with heritage, political background, Catholic influence, and education. Have you head of this book? Comments by anyone on this book?

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