Freud and the Non-Europeans

Edward Said, Freud and the Non-Europeans, with Introduction by Christopher Bollas and response by Jacqueline Rose.  London & New York: Verso, 2003.

Ghosts cluster about this brief volume, the work of an exile, ill and in his last years, writing about the work of an earlier exile, also ill and in his last years, who wrote about the pre-eminent exile of the Judaeo-Christian mythos.  Edward Said became an exile through catastrophic displacement forced by an expanding Judaism.  Sigmund Freud was only physically exiled in the last year of his life, by an expanding Nazism.  But his whole life was a kind of internal exile, as a Jew within Europe, and as a voyager within bourgeois subjectivity.  These were deeply intertwined, whence Freud brooded all his life about his Jewishness.  The marginality of the Jewish people determined the peculiarities of Freud’s genius more than any other factor.  He took Jewish estrangement and crafted a discourse of outland-ishness, and this became the secret to what was original and profound about him.  As Adorno put it in one of his most trenchant aphorisms: in psychoanalysis, nothing is true save the exaggerations, that is, the outlandish.

Moses and Monotheism is a strange book even for Freud, and as personal in its way as The Interpretation of Dreams.  Written intermittently between 1934 and 1938, “Moses seems to have been composed by Freud for himself,” writes Said (28).  The book has one of the most peculiar forms imaginable: three essays which keep rehashing and circling around the main ideas and fail to fit together, along with two prefaces contradicting each other (written before and after Germany’s occupation of Austria) and placed between the second and the third essay.

Moses and Monotheism is both a statement about Judaism and the last chapter of Freud’s lifelong quarrel with religion, a veritable Jihad in which he fancied that his new science would decisively undermine the ancient adversary.  “If our work,” he writes in the first preface, worrying lest the Catholic authorities of Vienna will cease to protect him, “leads us to a conclusion which reduces religion to a neurosis of humanity and explains its enormous power in the same way as a neurotic compulsion in our individual patients, we may be sure of drawing the resentment of our ruling powers down upon us” (Freud: Standard Edition, Vol XXIII, p. 55; italics added).

Of course it did no such thing.  The Freudian critique of religion was highly reductive, overvaluing the psychological and barely touching the actual spiritual and social content of religion.  It was also crippled by his elitism.  The bold argument of Moses and Monotheism, that the man behind the great Biblical figure was actually Egyptian, still has a certain scholarly currency.  But Freud inserted this into a schema in which the leader of the Jews also had to have been the originator of the religion.  This followed from his view that religions must be brought by a great man to a people, because ordinary folk, being infantile neurotics at heart, are incapable of anything so creative.  The founding figure became a Founding Father to the small helpless children who (in Freud’s view) comprise humanity.  He inherits the Oedipal ambivalence to which all human fathers are innately subject, and, in the typical development of a religion, is killed by his followers, who undergo various traumatic guilt reactions and neurotically shape the religion to ward them off.  It was this model (and not any curiosity about the real state of affairs) that led Freud to see the leader of the Jews as having been not a Jew, but instead an Egyptian priest a follower of the Pharaoh Akhenaton who had become disgruntled by the turning away from the latter’s monotheism, and who chose an obscure hill tribe to be the vessels of that great concept.

If the thesis of Moses and Montheism describes anything, it is Freud’s construction of himself as Moses: the alienated priest who brought the Enlightenment-religion of psychoanalysis to the band of his followers, only to be rejected and forbidden entry into the Promised Land.  This is no more bizarre than the actual history of the psychoanalytic movement, over which Freud presided like a jealous patriarch, demanding ideological conformity and fearing immolation at the hands of his epigones.  From this standpoint, Moses and Monotheism belongs with the numerous instances of Freud’s backward politics and dubious theorizing, such as the biological basis for the female castration complex (i.e., the idea of clitoral inferiority), his denial of the real impact of childhood trauma, or naturalizing the Oedipal relations of patriarchy.

And yet there remains a grandeur to the text, which Edward Said honors with a novel interpretation drawing upon the convulsive history that followed Freud’s death.  Said does not dwell upon the “just-so” story of religious origins.  His goal is rather to explore what Moses and Monotheism can tell us about the problem of identity in relation to the breakup and reassembly of the colonial system.  Freud wrote very little about the problem of identity, and he had no interest in the colonial system (not even its psychological aspects).  But if we are to rescue the Moses story from Freud’s ideological warp and build on its insights, we need to regard it as a parable of what really happens to people who are displaced and wander, and who reconstruct their identity the who we are on this basis.

Identity is a way we have of telling stories about ourselves.  Whether of a person or a people, it requires narrative and even myth; to argue otherwise is to reduce humans to machines.  By the same token we are each responsible for our identity.   Identity is an achievement and a praxis, which entails another kind of archeology—an excavation, reconstruction, and reinterpretation of who we are.  None of this is, or can be, free of value and choice.

Freud has been justly called an “archeologist of the mind”; and this is, I think, where his greatness lies.  It certainly is where his heart lay witness the remarkable collection of antiquities that populated his consulting room.  For me, Freud’s finest writing occurs in the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, where he models the mind along the lines of a Rome in which all layers and levels from 3,000 years of history are active and present at once.  When Freud constructs archeological objects through the lens of his bourgeois, Eurocentric, patriarchal, and falsely scientific sensibility, he becomes repressive and even absurd.  But when he allows the archeological principle into his very identity, he becomes great.  This is the Freud celebrated by Said.

Said tracks the archeology of Freud’s Jewishness and finds its truth in its acceptance of contradiction.  To say of Freud’s relationship with Judaism that it was conflicted, he writes, is to venture an understatement (35f).  Hostility to religion and uneasiness about Zionism only stimulated Freud’s curiosity and even pride in belonging to the Jewish people.  In sharp contrast to the therapeutic ethos by means of which psychoanalysis became absorbed as an enforcer of bourgeois rationality, in his own person Freud refused resolution of the conflict.  He kept it alive as a goad and an edge, remaining eternally negative in an epoch when the commodity-logic perpetually drives toward the “power of positive thinking” the one-dimensionality drawn by Herbert Marcuse.  The best proof of this, as Said shows, is the actual jaggedness of Freud’s Moses:

In this book, Freud the scientist looking for objective results in his investigation, and Freud the Jewish intellectual probing his own relationship with his ancient faith through the history and identity of its founder, are never really brought into a tidy fit with each other.  Everything about the treatise suggests not resolution and reconciliation…  but, rather, more complexity and a willingness to let irreconcilable elements of the work remain as they are: episodic, fragmentary, unfinished (i.e., unpolished).  (28)

The self-contradictory identity is implanted by the notion that an Egyptiana foreigner, a non-Israelite—could originate the Jewish nation.  Following through, we arrive at the conclusion that Jews are also to a degree foreign to themselves, and that the condition of exile somehow belongs to their identity.  I say somehow,’ not to indicate that Jews must perpetually wander and find no home, but to underscore their need to remain open to what is foreign.  Another way of saying this is that authentic Judaism needs to remain universal and accepting of the other.

Said develops this theme through confrontation with Zionism, whose triumph was the occasion of his own exile, and the defining fact of his intellectual life.  The cataclysms following upon Freud’ s death Holocaust succeeded by the Zionist conquest of Palestine brought forth a new turn in the politics of Jewish identity.  For now, out of the travails of specifically European anti-Semitism, the establishment of Israel in a non-European territory consolidated Jewish identity politically in a state that took very specific legal and political positions effectively to seal off that identity from anything that was non-Jewish.… [Thus] Israeli legislation countervenes, represses, and even cancels Freud’ s carefully maintained opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background.  The complex layers of the past, so to speak, have been eliminated by official Israel.  (43f)

¾and by official Israeli archeology as well, now a master science of the Zionist state, which constructs, no less tendentiously and much more perniciously than Freud, a compact, consolidated Jewishness, with a history and identity that eliminate the Other as remorselessly as the infamous Apartheid Wall now under construction inside the West Bank.  Zionism, then, is as inauthentic to Jewish identity as it is catastrophic to the Palestinians indeed, the two sides are causally connected.

Would Freud have liked this little gem of a book, and shared its grim sense of irony and its partial resuscitation of his emancipatory reputation? Would he have rejected Zionism’ s flattening out of the Jewish identity?

I like to think so—but that may just be a soft spot on my part for a man who shaped much of my own thinking.  What is beyond doubt, though, is that the passing of Edward Said has left us all the poorer.

Reviewed by Joel Kovel
Bard College; author, The Enemy of Nature

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