Martha Graham found Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas useful for making sense of both her personal life and the material to which she was drawn as a choreographer; they were particularly central to the creative process for her works based on Greek myths.
In Night journey (above), in which Oedipus’s mother and wife is forced by the blind seer Tiresias to relive the most painful moments of her life, Graham turns Jocasta into a powerful female protagonist by turning a straightforward linear narrative into a complex and difficult one, evoking the physically charged and taboo themes of eroticism, the maternal body, and death.
This according to “Dance, gender and psychoanalysis: Martha Graham’s Night journey” by Ramsay Burt (Dance research journal XXX/1 [spring 1998] pp. 34–53). Below, Graham herself dances in the opening of Alexander Hammid’s 1960 film of the work.
Related article: Herskovitz and Freud
Numerous examples of the Freudian concept of repression may be observed in black cultures in Africa and the Americas. Though they do not use the Western term, these cultures involve a full awareness of repression and its attendant dangers for individuals and society, and they have developed therapeutic activities to mitigate it.
This according to the 1934 essay “Freudian mechanisms in primitive Negro psychology” by Melville J. Herskovits, which was included in Essays presented to C.G. Seligman (London: Kegan Paul International). While the word primitive has since been discredited, the piece is a milestone in the history of anthropology and is considered the first successful application of psychoanalytic theory in that field.
Herskovits explores how in many cases these therapeutic activities comprise satirical or insulting singing events that express what cannot be spoken directly, providing a release of repressed feelings in a socially supported framework. He discusses examples from Benin, Haiti, and Suriname, with particular attention to the Suriname Maroon lóbi singi ritual.
Usually performed by women, lóbi singi may comprise an exchange of insulting song verses, or it may involve a woman who socially redeems herself through singing satirical verses about her notorious past in alternation with a chorus of her peers; in both cases, social wounds are healed by the expression of repressed feelings.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.
Top: In 1929, Herskovits contemplates ritual objects that he collected in Suriname.