Experiencing a Freudian culture shock in Rome

One of the finest expressions of culture shock, its causes and its effects, was written by famed psychoanalyst and lover of tiny cigars Sigmund Freud – only, he didn’t realise it at the time. In his essay A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, published in 1936, Freud, who at the time was touring Greece with his younger brother, describes his experience of visiting the renowned landmark in relation to the expectations set by himself and his time in education. What troubled Freud, however, and what motivated the writing of his essay, is the disconnect between expectations and reality which he experienced.

Standing in the August heat, amongst the ghosts of antiquity, Freud thought he knew the Acropolis. He thought he knew of its history and he thought he knew of its significance to the Ancient Greeks. He thought he knew all of this and more, and yet the reality he was confronted with did not match his expectations, curated and set by his extensive knowledge of classics; for how is one meant to relive the glories of Greece through ruins of stone?

Unaware, Freud’s expression of the sensation one feels when expectation and reality collide is an almost perfect description of culture shock. ‘Almost’ because Freud’s work does not explicitly describe the ‘space’, for lack of a better word, between expectation and reality as culture shock. This ‘space’ is best articulated as the difference between expectations and reality as a result of the individuals’ perceptions and the culture they are experiencing. The result? A self-created disorientation.

Allow me to illustrate. Last Summer, I visited the Santa Maria in Vallecica, in Rome, Italy. A small chapel, it sits along one of the city’s many highstreets nestled between one store and the next in reach of the shadow cast by Saint Peter’s Basilica. Like most older buildings it possessed an unusual coolness, a dampness to the rocks it was made of, resulting in an atmosphere at odds with the sauntering heat of the Mediterranean sun. As I sat down in one of the pews, I looked upwards and was confronted with a dozen or so stone angels, so meticulously carved that their skin appeared to almost rub against the silk of their dresses.

I did not know of the Santa Maria, but I thought I knew of the Renaissance and its architects. I thought I knew of their immense talent and the exquisite beauty they crafted. I thought I knew this, but still I was capsized. I had assumed that works of Renaissance beauty were confined to the great chapels and landmarks of the city, and never once did I think that such beauty equal to those would, or indeed could, be found in such unassuming places. My expectation had been this; the difference steamed from a life where such beauty could only be found in such landmarks; and the reality was entirely its own. Expectations can only carry us so far – unlike Freud, I had not set mine high enough.  

Yet, in culture shock, expectations overtime fade, and reality slowly creeps in. Eventually the difference which separated you from the culture you are experiencing disintegrates. All the baggage of your own time, culture, values, slips off (but does not disappear) until all you are left with is reality.


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Tristan Pollitt

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August 2021
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