A sculptor friend, Thomas Morrison, privately commented on my “Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud”, lamenting the puritanical repression of the id, and my response led me to the following critique of his own exhibit, “The Art of Woman” (currently free and open daily at the old St. Vincent’s Orphanage at 1507 Magazine St in New Orleans).
In my appended comment to the Zeppelin blog, I noted that in the healthy sonic universe, as in the healthy psyche, the id, ego, and superego work symbiotically. With Morrison’s sculptures, we’re moored in a cultural universe rather than a sonic one. I appreciate the power that the id brings to that cultural universe, and I am no fan of puritanical repression; I am, however, thankful for some element of cultural superego, some formation that can harness the id’s primal, amoral drives to higher ideals and aspirations.
In the Zeppelin blog, I didn’t get into the policing function of the superego, but it is apparent in the Beatles’s “Revolution,” which is a check against revolutionary forces (like the Weather Underground) that could potentially become violent and counterproductive. This aligns “Revolution” with the Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” which overlays the same cautionary tale upon the cultural revolution of the 60s.
Morrison’s exhibit, a collection of cast bronze female nudes from Greek mythology, draws more from the Jungian model’s collective unconscious, which doesn’t correspond neatly to the Freudian schema. The collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche which houses the three Freudian zones, but if we extrapolate Freud to the cultural level, I’d say that classical mythology is a collision of the cultural id with the cultural superego, as untamed cosmic forces intersect with cultural ideals. E.g., Andromeda is buffeted by gigantic forces beyond human comprehension, but Perseus steps in as a kind of superego figure who imposes moral order upon the otherwise chaotic power of the id. Andromeda is the ego here, subjected to the inscrutable powers of the cosmic id, but saved by the moralizing power of the superego. It is a role played often by women in classical mythology – so much so that we might say that the ego is a feminized function in classical myth.
Morrison’s sculpture captures Andromeda, the ego, at the moment of her subjection. His Penelope, on the other hand, is a more integrated figure. Her stoic gaze (more striking live and up close than it appears in this image) shows her to be quite aware of her subjection to forces beyond her control, but in her posture she is herself heroic, impervious to all advances. She contains within herself, within her own moral compass, the heroic counterpoint to those entropic forces. Unlike his Andromeda, Morrison’s Penelope is casted as a freestanding human figure, self-contained, self-referential, enacting within herself the collision of the id and superego. Whereas the sculpted environment of Andromeda emphasizes the external limits of the female form depicted, the gesture toward environment in Penelope – the hermit crab at her feet – does not interrupt the freestanding contours of the figure. To be sure, it “grounds” her, showing perhaps the thrownness of the ego into a particular terrestrial time and space, yet she stands, beside, above, separate. The “hermit” crab may show the thrownness of the ego, but also implies by its very nature the isolated integrity of the individual.
So if Morrison’s Andromeda gains its affective power by what is missing – Perseus – and by focusing our attention on the dramatic context, his Penelope gains affective power from her self-possession, with all attention on the gaze and subjectivity of the freestanding body at hand. The secret, and perhaps subversive, power of Morrison’s Penelope is that she needs no Odysseus to complete her heroic journey.