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Birthing the Minotaur.


Picasso reckoned we were all of us therianthropes – at least he was. He thought he was a Minotaur.

Let’s do a midrash on the Minotaur. When they first made him, he was not a myth, he was a therianthrope, a mixture of human and animal. He shared this identity with the earliest creatures we ever daubed onto our earliest cave walls. Therianthropes go so deep into our psyches that Picasso reckoned we were all of us therianthropes – at least he was. He thought he was a Minotaur. Trouble is, he had lost the bull’s strength, while retaining the man’s torment. The image of the Minotaur obsessed him till the end of his days. It is worth remarking that Picasso’s Minotaurs are always searching for tenderness. These mighty creatures are never tearing apart young women; they seek only to caress, and be caressed by them. They yearn and are rewarded with blinding and humiliation.

MGC, red.MG Motors made a roadster model, the MGC, which never caught on much, though it still maintains a marginal life among aficionados. It appears almost identical to the highly popular MGB, but with a mightier engine. Most of the rest of the body is indistinguishable from the MGB, so are the brakes. This made it, in the opinion of many, overpowered. The Minotaur is like this. All that bullish strength inside a man’s body. All that bullish strength but with a man’s nervous system. The motor is so powerful the brakes can barely hold it back. Once there were no brakes, only the drives, the untrammelled, hurtling drives. Then along came civilization, and its discontents. All that tenderness; all that rage. Two sides of one coin. Can this really be who we are?

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This is inevitably a Freudian midrash, whether we are Freudians or not. It’s not possible to pretend the Viennese fellow isn’t there, whether you agree with him or not. This therianthrope has been wombed out of distorted desire, and female desire at that. Pasiphae fell under a spell and the spell made her desire the white bull of Poseidon so unquenchably that she simply had to have him. Technology in its most up-to-date form was summoned, and Daedalus fashioned a heifer out of wood and white hide with enough space inside for the queen to insert herself, and an aperture beneath of sufficient dimensions that the bull’s mighty pizzle could insert itself therein. Under cover of Cretan darkness the deed was done. And out came Asterion. A lad of sorts, and a trifle bull-headed. But raising him was a little like raising a lion cub. However cuddly and loveable he seemed at first, the native violence of his being asserted itself as he grew. Finally, King Minos had had enough of this howling menace, and the sexual disgrace he represented to the royal line of Crete.

Minos himself, like so many regal fellows at the time, had put it about a bit himself. And Pasiphae, a sorceress, had poisoned his sperm so that scorpions and poisonous spiders entered the womb of any young woman impregnated by him. His lovers would be eaten alive from within. Not too much sisterhood there then, but there seldom is, when a rich and powerful man spreads his favours around amongst the ladies. But this was different. This was miscegenation. Not racial miscegenation, of the sort that used to get you locked up in South Africa under apartheid, but species miscegenation, of the sort that can still get you locked up today, just about anywhere you choose to practise it.

And so the Lord of Technology, Dr Daedalus, was obliged once more to put his thinking cap on and devise somewhere for the troublesome young bullman to live. Out of sight and out of mind. The labyrinth. The biggest and most complex one ever built. Freud couldn’t have fashioned a metaphor more suited to his purpose – yet oddly enough, he barely refers to it. Was that because female desire, rather than the male variety, was the motor behind it? Freud’s subject tended to be male desire. Female desire was merely its shadow, its companion-piece. Freud found women and what they were really after unfathomable, and he said so.

Freud’s re-reading of the Oedipus myth is one of the most radical re-readings in our history.

Freud did something that was shocking at the time and should still be shocking now, if we pay sufficient attention. He said that mythic literature, closely observed, provided us with evidence about the human condition which science had failed to observe. He said truths were revealed here which modern thought had missed. This was challengingly unorthodox of him. His re-reading of the Oedipus myth is one of the most radical re-readings in our history. What had before been a play containing a fateful confusion and misunderstanding turns instead into the revelation of a universal desire. Oedipus kills his father and beds his mother because that is what we all secretly want to do. Freud in fact cheats here. This is not at all what Oedipus wanted to do. Had he had the feintest inkling that Laius was his father, then he would have genuflected at the crossroads, not given the old fellow a lethal blow. And had he had any notion Jocasta was his mother then he would never have laid a sexual finger on her. On finding out that she was indeed his mother, now also his mate and the mother of his children, he blinds himself. So although we should congratulate Freud for his bravery in finding in the Greek myths sources of intellectual discovery, we might have asked a little more loudly, Why this particular one? And why only this one? And what do you mean by saying that this is what Oedipus really wanted? Ah, Freud would have said, if you go deep down enough into his psyche…Trouble is, if you go deep down enough into anyone’s psyche, you come out the other side.

Freud universalizes from his own experience and identity, though he would have been appalled at the suggestion that he had done so. His mother adored him and he adored her. His father he held in contempt, for a time anyway, because he endured the antisemitic abuse of the streets of Vienna without fighting back. And so Sigmund wished to be cradled in his mother’s arms. And just as Oedipus struck down his own father Laius at the crossroads, Sigmund might have subliminally struck down his own father on the Viennese streets. And thus did he create the universal paradigm. But it is not universal, in point of fact. Sebastiano Timpanaro wrote his brilliant book The Freudian Slip, to show how dubious so many Freudian readings are – how voulu were the techniques involved. Asked why he had done this, he replied that the analysis simply did not apply to him. It did not apply to me either. I did not have a mother’s love lavished upon me, and I did not regard my father as a competitor for that source of affection. So I was always a trifle dubious about this universalizing of a particular myth. But what a career this reading has had. How ready people have been to believe in it, even though I have never met a single human being who believed it applied to their own experience.

The Minotaur is the product of wild and uncontrollable female desire… Pasiphae is out there with the wild bull howling in the moonlight.

What might have happened, had Freud chosen a different paradigm? He could still have gone back to Greek mythology to find it. At the very moment Freud was expounding the tale of Oedipus as the universal key to our psyche, Picasso was choosing the Minotaur as his exemplary (and explanatory) myth. Picasso was a brilliant thinker, but he did all his thinking in his art, not his life. The Minotaur is the product of wild and uncontrollable female desire. It is Queen Pasiphae who has to possess and be possessed by the gorgeous white bull. She then gives birth to the Minotaur, half bull and half man. And this creature must in turn be hidden away in the labyrinth. So to answer Freud’s question, what women really want is something so unspeakable that…well, it’s better not spoken of.

This myth could have provided Freud with a rich enough paradigm for psychoanalysis, and the various distortions of the psyche. There’s a problem though. It all starts with female desire. Freud would have found that difficult if not impossible. At root he looked on women as failed men, lacking a penis. Or, as in Greek mythology, wandering wombs on their way to self-hanging. In the story of Oedipus, Jocasta is there to be bedded and wedded by Laius and then Oedipus — take your turn, boys — then she hangs herself. But Pasiphae is the active partner. She is out there with the wild bull howling in the moonlight. Her desire creates a new species, and what a troublesome species it turns out to be. John Berger reckoned that Picasso was never more intelligent than when he was creating Cubism with Braque, but I reckon he ran himself a close second when he created his Minotaur images. All the great force, all the potential for violence here, results in a defeated tenderness. In the magnificent Minotauromachy of 1935, the man/animal is halted by a small girl holding a light. He appears dazzled by her presence. Picasso never explained his iconography. He left it to us to fathom it. The small girl holding a light can represent a greater force than the mighty bull roaring with rage. Go figure…

The minotaur is more central to our culture than we seem ready to acknowledge. One piece of acting that changed modern cinema overnight was Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s film of Streetcar Named Desire. In the film Brando is the nearest thing a male actor can come to a minotaur. He heaves and sweats in his animal rage and frustration. It is said that he would go down to the zoo during filming, in order to study the gorillas and the way they handled themselves. It shows, too. Opposite him, Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois tries to enact and protect the proprieties. She is civilization, and he is civilization’s discontents. Unlike the gorillas, though, Stanley can’t be caged. This couple are in a confined space. Stanley’s desire is not containable in any space. All of Blanche’s coy come-hitherishness is torn away in a moment. No use blaming Stanley. That’s like blaming the minotaur for getting hungry for some virgins from Athens once every nine years. An appetite is an appetite, after all. You’d have to be a saint to stare them all down day after day.

We now find the minotaur phenomenon in lots of places, from Tony Soprano to John Lennon.

We now find the minotaur phenomenon in lots of places. Tony Soprano is a minotaur, constantly reaching out to be tender with one hand; tearing someone to pieces with the other. When John Lennon sings ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ what is so compelling about the performance is the near-animal howling that gives way to yielding tenderness the moment after. Yes, we are hearing the noises in the night from the labyrinth. John Lennon was surely the minotaur inside the little labyrinth of the Beatles. He was the one who could be suddenly dangerous, as he noticed the bars going up around him. And he was the one that our modern Theseus came for, in order to cut him down. No Ariadne was required, with a magical sword, just an American gun shop. I have met many minotaurs in my life; I don’t believe I have met a single Oedipus. Never has anyone I have encountered approximated to the Oedipus Complex. There is a complex a lot of men approximate to: the mother, not as seductress, but as ball-breaker. Will-breaker. Dominatrix. I have met men distorted and damaged and shrivelled by a dominant mother. Watched as their marriages fell apart because the beloved boy could not shake free from his hag-ridden infantile psyche. He didn’t fancy her, though. Ever.

The wrong-headedness of Freud’s reading of Oedipus then led on to his wrong-headedness regarding Hamlet. This has led a myriad students astray. Freud’s basic argument was this. Two thousand years on, the forces of repression have grown stronger. So Hamlet longs to kill his old man so that he can bed his mother, but he actually does neither (there’s repression for you). Claudius, however, does both. And so faced with Claudius and his undoubted crimes, Hamlet goes into a dither. He cannot really punish his uncle for his heinous crimes, because those heinous crimes are precisely the ones he had been wishing to commit himself. Hence his fateful hesitation. Hamlet fancies his mum, you see. Bad news for a fellow’s decisiveness and valour.

He doesn’t though. Fancy her, that is. A serious reading of the play shows that his mother disgusts him, as well she might. Four months after his father’s unexpected death, his mother has wed her husband’s brother. If this were a premier league footballer today, it would be all over the red-tops. It would be the splash. It is shocking. And if it is shocking today, it was far more shocking in Elizabethan times, when the normal expectation was for a woman to wear some form of widow’s weeds for a year after her husband’s death, and marrying his brother carried shady implications of some sort of incest. Hamlet is repelled by it, and who can blame him? And Gertrude and Claudius are not at all discreet. They appear to be going to it like a pair of teenagers fresh out of a disco. Hardly surprising if Hamlet avoids all the celebratory goings-on as much as possible. It requires a wilful misreading to find any hint of Oedipus here. But then it required a wilful misreading to find Freud’s Oedipus in Oedipus…

Back to the story of the Minotaur. Pasiphae has despoiled her womb with her desire. She has gone to her sacred place of creation and filled it with her unspeakable need. A man no longer reigns there; the King no longer reigns there. You’re going to need an immaculate conception to right the world, after this royal lady’s capers during her moonlight flit. One of her actual births after the minotaur is Ariadne, his half-sister, who betrays her horny-headed brother by falling in love with Theseus. She gives the new hero a sword with magical properties, with which he can assassinate her half-brother. And a bobbin of twine, with which he can find his way back out of the labyrinth. In one version of the myth, she hangs herself with this, having been left behind on Naxos by the forgetful Theseus. She waves frantically at the black sails of his boat as it leaves. But Theseus and his crew are carousing on board; they have all forgotten the little foreign saviour. She has served her purpose. She has played the rat to her own people and her own family.

What we desire is what we don’t have. So it seems that Minos, with his poisonous sperm, left something to be desired after all. The something to be desired was a fabulous white bull. It wasn’t lengthy candle-lit discussions about Minoan culture that Pasiphae was lacking then, on those long blue nights, but vigour. Pure vigour and animal beauty. Amidst some non-linguistic howling. And the product was a miscegenated monster, to be hidden away and shunned. We can think of that Cretan labyrinth as the first asylum. And the minotaur’s palliative treatment? A selection of virgins from Athens every nine years. They were fed into the labyrinth. None of the mythic accounts has ever detailed what happened next. We can only speculate. We are speculating about appetites – post-miscegenation. I think we are meant to assume that the minotaur, unlike his dad, was not a vegetarian.

What does it mean to want what you cannot have? To desire that which is forbidden you? To find yourself in a garden with a fruit hanging from a tree, a fruit you so much want to bite into that you know you will, even though it’s ‘not done’. Not done by them; doesn’t mean it’s not done by me. If the desire is there, how did it get there? What does it mean to want what cannot be wanted? This must signify that the world and the machinery of desire are askew. That the person and the world can never again fit together. That the seam between the individual and the cosmos must always be a fractured one of frustration and grief. That the world and the desiring body have been designed from the off to be enemies, each of the other. What malicious demiurge could have brought this about? Why are you doing your cooking from such a recipe for disaster?

In creating civilization we have to suppress so much of what we instinctually want that we end up crippled. The price of civilization is our emotional crippledom.

Freud’s answer: civilization and its discontents. That in creating civilization we have to suppress so much of what we instinctually want that we end up crippled. The price of civilization is our emotional crippledom. You want the Taj Mahal, Michaelangelo, aeroplanes? Then go buy yourself a mental walking-stick. It’s right there in the Book of Genesis. Jacob wrestles with the angel. He wants to know the angel’s name. He wants to be up there in the realm where the spiritual creatures share passwords and monikers. Fine, says the angel. Then you must be wounded. And Jacob receives a wound on his thigh from which he never recovers. He limps away from his glorious encounter. He has discovered the dreadful asymmetry of desire.

And if we were to trace our origins back not through Freud’s myth but through our minotaur, then Pasiphae re-creates her own womb through her own desire. She displaces the expected royal lineage. She becomes, you might say, her own woman. She gives birth to a creature with a double nature. All soft flesh for nestling and caressing to begin with; then it gets started with the razor blades.

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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