Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers

Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers is the latest in the Canongate-sponsored Myths series (Canongate seems to have inexplicably given up the domain of the series homepage; LT series page here; n.b. The Fire Gospel is not actually out yet [in the States?]), which I have been following devotedly ever since first picking up The Penelopiad. There have been ups and downs in the series thus far, but this most recent appealed to me least.

Perhaps Three Roads was doomed from the start, as an adaptation of a myth I’ve never particularly cared for—that of Oedipus. But of all my complaints about the book, the storyline is the least of them.

First, we start off with an excerpt from Sigmund Freud on Oedipus. Then, Vickers provides us with a (thankfully) brief rundown of the last years of Freud’s life, from the time he was diagnosed with oral cancer until he died. This is not a pleasant history; I was not expecting to find a marginally nauseating account of the use of oral prostheses when I picked this book up, and I was not thrilled. The action does, however, take place during Freud’s last days, and it is appropriate for the reader to have some understanding of his decline.

That action being a dialogue between Freud and Tiresias, who first appears at Freud’s bedside after his first operation, then later many times leading up to Freud’s death. Tiresias is there to tell Freud the story of his life, beginning with his childhood as the son of a shepherd, through his time working at the Delphic oracle, his blinding by Athena, and, much later, his revelation that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy by killing his father and sleeping with his mother.

One issue is that Tiresias’ life and experiences are much more interesting than the traditional story of Oedipus. But a much bigger issue is that the dialogue format makes the whole book seem too didactic. Certainly the dialogue was chosen to mimic ancient Greek dialogues like those of Plato, and this one is constructed, I believe, to teach in a similar way. Tiresias, here, is teaching Freud…what? I am not completely sure. Reference is made many times to the fact that the psychoanalyst has made his career on the Oedipus story, and Tiresias is now here to tell him how things really went down. But it’s still not clear to me how successful this is.

Toward the beginning of the dialogue, much focus is put on Tiresias’ view of, and direct knowledge of, the gods and goddesses. Freud is ever the rationalist, denigrating superstitious beliefs even when it comes to his own affection for a collectible statue of Athena:

My dear fellow, aside from a displacement for repressed infantile desires any “deity” is a primitive need to rationalise natural in justice….The humour no doubt conceals some relic of superstitious animism. It is hard to surmount entirely our primitive mentality.

Tiresias’ responses are mostly of the, “Sure, doctor, whatever you say,” variety, which is fine—you are a prophet, you’ve even been blinded by a deity, so you’re more mystical than Freud, who would have guessed. But in all the back-and-forth of the dialogue the repetition starts to wear.

And repetition is, to my mind, the work’s greatest flaw. It just felt like it took far, far too long to tell this story, and without any tangible gain in nuance or appreciation for the tale. Tiresias gives us a different perspective on events, and the last quarter or so of the dialogue seemed to be reaching for more, plumbing the imputed emotions of Jocasta and Oedipus when they realize the unspeakable truth. Tiresias focuses on the fact that he did not want to reveal this truth, but was forced to by an unyielding Oedipus, unwilling to be protected.

[Tiresias]—No one hears the same story since your retelling, Dr. Freud.
[Freud]—Is that a compliment or an insult?
—Don’t get me wrong, Doctor. You got the size of the drama right, if not the entire point of it. Because, if I may say so, here in all the world was the one person you could safely say didn’t have the complex you dreamed up for him. He was Oedipus, plain Oedipus. But not simple. What was complex about him was not that he wanted to sleep with his mother (as she herself said, that impulse is not so uncommon) nor even that he killed a man who had once before threatened his life. Tit for tat, some might say. What was so remarkable was that his own safekeeping was usurped by the need to know what he needed not to know. He needed to know it so imperatively that he pushed on, against everyone’s effort to prevent him, even—most powerful—his own. It was as if his very life hung upon the thread of knowledge which could destroy it.
—He was more comforted by truth than fortified by comfort.
—You would know, Dr. Freud.

Here we have, I think, a nice summation of things. Freud has gotten the point of the Oedipus story wrong, a point which Tiresias believes hinges on a need to know things and how dangerous that can be. And Freud himself has this same “complex.” In fact, we even learned back at the beginning that Freud’s doctors and family attempted to hide the nature of his condition from him; when he learned the truth he made a pact with a new doctor to never be lied to, and to be euthanized when the time came.

But beyond this, most of the analysis seemed to fall flat. There was an especially repetitive strain toward the end about how Jocasta felt about leaving her infant son to die. Tiresias says she felt constant guilt about exposing Oedipus, that she was always looking for her son again, and that she believed she had committed the most terrible crime imaginable. This seemed pretty inappropriate. While it’s impossible for historians to gauge reliably exactly how much infant exposure occurred in ancient Greece, it was most definitely not an unknown phenomenon and I can’t imagine a Theban at this time period would have been nearly so troubled by it. It is a minor issue but I found it distracting, an insertion of the author’s view in place of one that could reasonably be ascribed to Tiresias.

In sum, this is probably worth a read if you are interested in the Oedipus myth or have a better liking for the dialogue format than I do (it is a style that irks me somewhat even traditionally). I’ve never read anything else by Salley Vickers, so perhaps it is also simply her prose style I didn’t take to; if you love her, you may well love this too. But I found it generally too didactic and too repetitive for too little reward.

3 comments to Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers

  • Alison

    Hmm… Oedipus was never one of my favorites either, so I would probably never pick this book up. However, I know you are a huge proponent of this series [I remember you talking about the Winterson one -- are you (could you be?) interested in writing about the ones you like... though I know your preferences and recommendations, your reviews are compelling in a different way].

    Anyway, this review reminds me of everything that went wrong at my small liberal arts college — require that all students read Oedipus and Freud, and look what results….
    Or you could always have a dance in response to Nietzsche.

    Also, since its repeating in my head, “Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?”

  • Yeah, for sure I would be up for taking another look at Weight—I think that’s probably my favorite one.

    A lot harder to write a favorable review than a critical or even middling one though. “Look at this beautiful sentence,” “Look at that beautiful sentence,” etc. (Okay, I will probably have more to say than that.)

  • I suspect I’d feel much as you did about this. I didn’t know it was in dialogue, which is yet another drawback for me. Perhaps my completist instincts will make me read it at some point, but I won’t feel too bad if I skip it.

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