LK: In the early days of research for Once There Was a House, I kept coming across references to Freud’s famous essay “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva”. I quickly bypassed this entry every time it came up. I had no idea what the reference was, but it didn’t sound relevant to the angle that we were pursuing for our installation. I have to say, however, I was intrigued and made a mental note to follow up on this reference as soon as I had some time.
In the early years of the 20th century the German author, Wilhelm Jensen, wrote a novella called “Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fantasy”. It was about an archaeologist obsessed with an antique sculpture, a bas-relief of a Roman woman walking. This archaeologist falls in love with the sculpture and names the woman Gradiva, Latin for “the girl stepping forward”. The plot, stripped down to pure action, goes something like this: the archaeologist visits Pompeii and meets a real woman he thinks is this Gradiva come to life. She is, in fact, his childhood sweetheart Zoe, but he fails to recognize her, repressing sexual desires and succumbing to fears of women. In a dream the archaeologist sees this living Gradiva turned into a corpse when overcome by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. While wandering the streets of Pompeii he again meets Zoe, who speaks German to him; but he can’t believe she is real and fails once again to recognize her as his childhood friend. Zoe, the real life Gradiva, helps the archaeologist by playing along with his delusions of not recognizing her. Ultimately she cures him through her love.
Phew! A lot to chew on. And granted, such a bare-bones description of what takes place might leave us scratching our heads. It seems that Freud had a collection of antiquities and a fascination with the ancient world. He compared psychoanalysis to archaeology, and Pompeii was the perfect locus for his some of his ideas: “There is, in fact, no better analogy for repression, by which something in the mind is at once made inaccessible and preserved, than burial of the sort to which Pompeii fell victim…” In fact, Freud’s essay was the first psychoanalytic study of a work of literature. In “Gradiva” Freud found a way to illustrate his ideas of repressed memories, dreams and unconscious thought, delusions, and sexual neurosis, and most importantly, how to resolve these crises through psychoanalysis.