Charles Fernyhough: The goddess Athena

Detail from black-figure ceramic amphora depicting the birth of Athena from Zeus' head,

The goddess Athena sprang, fully armed, from a bump on her father’s head. Other versions of the myth associate her birth with water, with a stream or a lake, which may reflect her origin in the earth goddesses of the pre-Hellenics. In Greek mythology, however, she is a virgin goddess. In Book Seven of the Odyssey, she appears to Odysseus as a little girl in pigtails, hugging a water jug. The poet tells us that she retains her grey eyes, and yet her divine disguise is not compromised: Odysseus does not recognise her. Our daughter Athena was also born with grey eyes, for me at least the ultimate vindication of our name-choice. A prophecy had been fulfilled, and it was just one of the things I was delighted about. It took a few weeks for me to be relieved of this delusion, and have it gently pointed out that all babies have blue-grey eyes at birth. Iris colour is determined by the presence of isolated pigment cells called chromatophores, which only begin to develop in the first few weeks of life. In the newborn, light passes through the unpigmented front layer of the iris and is reflected back with the red frequencies absorbed. The same happens when light passes through a body of water: the longer wavelengths are absorbed, and the water appears blue-grey. The poets are therefore correct: eyes are like water-pools. There is a scientific basis for everything, if you want to look for it.

Perhaps, in naming her Athena, we had made a sort of purchase, an investment in some of these ready-made myths. Otherwise, choosing a name for a child seemed like an utterly arbitrary decision, pointless in its specificity, like insisting on a particular day of the week for an appointment twenty years in the future. We already had our own myth about our daughter’s creation. It involved a stove-warmed room in our house in County Durham, shortly after our return from the first of our heady Cretan holidays. There were other occasions that might have been responsible — we could still feel the sun on our skin, after all — but this one shone back at us through memory with the right amount of quiet magicality. We seemed to want to tell a story about her, as if that might justify her, as if her mere presence here wasn’t enough. The goddess would not have existed outside the stories. Our daughter, on the other hand, was a thing of flesh and blood, who was there at night when you went to sleep, and would be there, you hoped, when you woke up. We worried about cot death, of course. We had heard that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was caused by pillows and duvets. We went to great lengths to protect our daughter from these dangers of the modern world. If a pillow or duvet-corner ever touched Athena accidentally, Lizzie would gasp almost audibly, and rush to bat the offending article out of the way, with as much urgency as if it had been a trailing electrical cable, or a letter impregnated with anthrax.

The bump on Zeus’s head came about in an unusual way. Zeus had made love to Metis, a Titan, and then heard that the child she would bear would grow up to rule the gods. Zeus’s way of dealing with the pregnant Metis was to swallow her. But the child, Athena, was determined to be born, and fought her way out, fully armed with sword and aegis. In Crete that year I had been reading Ted Hughes’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When we drove along the northern motorway, Mount Ida rose above us, parched by the ravages of summer. Zeus had been raised there. The light on the sea seemed eternal, and we felt as though we were outside time, that we could have ceased to be material and simply dissolved in that brilliance. At Falassarna I stood in a rockpool up to my knees and watched a young woman run naked into the water. She was about a hundred yards down the beach, too far for anything but a thumbnail memory. All I could be sure of was the fact of her nakedness, and that alone made her beautiful. She had a quick happy shyness about her, so different to the confident Germans on the south coast. She looked too pale to be a tourist. There was a friend there as well, and I saw them laughing as they waded into the shallows, eurhythmic ghosts from another century, caught on silent film. She, too, was a myth, one of the true ones. I could love her, dream of her, because she wasn’t really of this earth. I waded out of the rockpool and swam after her, trying to make my nude pursuit look natural, but she was lost among the anonymous wet heads that bobbed and dived in that part of the sea. A little while later I saw her back at her camp beside the rocks, mortal again, a towel wrapped around her shoulders, her head tipped back to laugh quietly and kindly, as though she had just played a trick on a child.

In the Introduction to his translations, Hughes points out some reasons why Ovid’s tales have a particular resonance for our times. We stand at a particular point in history. The old pantheon has fallen in on men’s heads. The mythic plane has been defrocked. At the same time, Hughes writes, the Empire is flooded with ecstatic cults. It is at sea in hysteria and despair, one extreme wallowing in the mire, the other searching higher and higher for a spiritual transcendence. Ovid’s tales of metamorphosis, continues Hughes, establish a rough register of what it feels like to live in the psychological gulf that opens at the end of an era. For us, the era is modernity. Our crumbling Empire is Reason. The need for spiritual transcendence is as great as it was in Ovid’s time.

Like all good scientists, even lapsed ones, I interpreted this passage strictly in terms of my own obsessions. Hughes’s psychological gulf was a crisis in psychology itself. It was the gulf between the pop psychology of self-help books and therapy fashions, and the more or less rigorous empirical work of those who actually sought evidence to support their theories. I had turned my back on a science that was under attack from all sides. Public confidence had been battered by the BSE disaster, and a perceived arrogance about genetic determination. The modern myth-maker was Freud, and what Freud offered was the story. Therapy, in all its watered-down versions of Freudianism, was about telling a story about yourself. No one read novels any more, because everyone had their own story — constructed at great expense with the help of an analyst — and didn’t need anyone else to write one for them. The sales figures for my own first novel seemed to prove this triumphantly. If this scepticism was directed at science in general, then it was felt in scientific psychology in particular. The “narrative turn” in psychology had elevated the personal and subjective above the quaint old methods of the first experimental psychologists. The only people still doing behavioural studies weren’t psychologists at all: they were biologists and geneticists. Freud had won. His all-conquering vaguenesses had permeated every area of thought. Never before had a psychology taken root so pervasively in the absence of any empirical support. But these days you didn’t need empirical support — you needed a story that sounded right. And if you dared suggest that science could offer an objective truth about reality, you were told that science itself was a myth, a clever toolkit of fully-adjustable rhetorics, just one more product of the human need to tell ourselves stories about the world.

One of the most important first steps in the development of narrative psychology was, paradoxically, taken by an old school empiricist. Sir Frederic Bartlett, FRS, first professor of Experimental Psychology in the University of Cambridge, conducted a series of experiments in the 1920s designed to shed light on the brain’s capacity to organise incoming information. He presented his subjects with a North American Indian folk-tale called The War of the Ghosts, which involved supernatural goings-on quite alien to his Cambridge subjects. By looking at the errors his subjects made in their retellings of the story, Bartlett found convincing evidence that people assimilate an unusual story to existing knowledge structures, in much the same way that Piaget’s infant assimilates new objects to existing schemas. Recent work on cognitive “scripts” supports Bartlett’s conclusions. When we go into a restaurant, the context automatically activates a script, or prototypical story structure, for the events — being shown to a seat, handed a menu and wine list — that can be expected to unfold. But these are stories that are shared by everyone in the culture. Even Bartlett, the arch-empiricist, knew that his work posed a problem for objectivity in psychology. Some scripts are shared, but most are unique to the individual. Everyone’s stories are different. How can we generalise about human mentality, when everyone cuts the world according to a different plan?

Acknowledgements: This article is an extract from a pre-final version of the author’s The Baby in the Mirror (Granta Books, 2008). Paragraph 4 incorporates and adapts quotations from Ted Hughes’ Introduction to his Tales from Ovid (Faber and Faber, 2002).

© Charles Fernyhough, 2012

Charles Fernyhough is a British writer and scientist. He has written two novels, The Auctioneer (1999) and A Box of Birds (forthcoming), and two highly praised works of popular science, The Baby in the Mirror (2008), an intellectual biography of his infant daughter, and Pieces of Light (2012), an exploration of the psychology of autobiographical memory. He is also Reader in Psychology at the University of Durham, where he conducts research on private speech and child cognitive development — topics on which he has published extensively.