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Sigmund Freud

6 SOCIETY AND RELIGION

6 SOCIETY AND RELIGION Freud was never one to restrict his writings to the realm of individual psychology. Just as he used his initial analyses of hysterical and neurotic illnesses to formulate a universal theory of sexual and mental development, so he applied his ideas which began as theories of the individual, such as the Oedipus complex and repression, to society at large. Through Freud’s numerous articles on anthropology, religion, art and society, psychoanalysis developed into a set of principles that claimed the power to explain aspects of all these fields. Psychoanalysis, in a sense, colonised other areas of theoretical speculation about humans and their relations, although it did so with varying degrees of success. There are no anthropologists today who would see in Freud’s anthropological writings anything but evidence of past dubious beliefs about anthropology, but the explanatory stories he posits continue to have power as literary creations or myths for our culture. His writings on war and group psychology pose intriguing speculative answers to questions about the herd instinct in human beings, the origin of outbreaks of organised violence, and the distinctively human ability to identify oneself with an immaterial ideal such as a nation or a cause to the extent of being willing to fight and die for it (see particularly ‘Thoughts for the Time on War and Death’ and ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’). All these problems of human social organisation and bonds seemed to Freud to call out for psychoanalytic explanations. But, even as Freud claimed the right to add psychoanalytic insight to these far-flung areas of human behaviour, he recognised that psychoanalytic thinking could not claim to explain everything. In fact it would be against one of the major principles of psychoanalysis to do so: ‘There are no grounds for fearing that psychoanalysis, which first discovered that psychical acts and structures are invariably overdetermined, will be tempted to trace the origin of anything so complicated as religion to a single source’ (Freud 1912–13:159). The overdetermined nature of dreams and symptoms made it clear that the search for a single source or a single interpretation was a misguided one. Similarly, no single source could explain the complicated complex of ideas which make up the human tendency towards religious belief. On the other hand, there may be good grounds for fearing that Freud will try to trace back phenomena to a single root; supplying that sort of determining origin story is a major temptation for him, and one to which he often succumbs. Freud’s psychoanalytic stories constantly posit possible explanations for the beginnings of things – whether it is the origin of neurotic illness or of artistic creativity. One of the first promises of psychoanalysis to its hysterical women patients was that uncovering and understanding the origins of their illnesses in repressed memory would help lead them towards a cure. Even when the strength of this claim was modified in the course of analytic practice, the desire for key-like explanations still maintains a strong hold over Freud’s imagination. The more speculative his writings become, the more tempted he seems to be by the possibility of discovering the origins of mental states and social practices. In his desire to master original explanations he resembles the young child who is searching for the answer to the question ‘Where do babies come from?’ or ‘Where do I come from?’ Freud often asks, ‘When and why did this mental development (neurotic symptom, sense of guilt, feeling of hatred for the father, etc.) happen for the first time?’ The roots that he imagines sometimes stretch back further than the life of the single individual towards prehistoric speculations. Freud shares a faith in a popular nineteenth-century analogy that emerged in part from a misreading of evolutionary theory – the idea that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ or that the

childhood of the individual person resembles the earliest prehistoric stages of humanity. This ‘childhood of the race’ is believed to have survived in the practices of tribal societies or, as the racially inflected terminology of nineteenth-century anthropology labelled them, ‘primitive’ peoples. When it employs metaphors of ‘the primitive’ and savagery, psychoanalysis can be seen as implicated in the racist language and ideas of the time. But, following Freud, critics of racism have also used psychoanalytical ideas and terminology to help explain the psychic mechanisms of twentieth-century racism. For instance, the French psychiatrist and revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon (1925–61) used psychoanalytic theory to help explain the colonial subject’s divided experience of being a black subject under white rule. Fanon’s psychoanalytically informed analysis of racism points to the way adopting the coloniser’s language shapes and creates the consciousness of the colonised. If a culture identifies blackness as inferior or evil, and a black colonial subject grows up speaking the language of that culture, then he or she will unconsciously share these assumptions. Cultural values are internalised, creating a split and alienated subject: the black man or woman who identifies with the dominant colonising culture, who sees him or herself as a subject, and the black man or woman who is repudiated by that culture, the object of that culture’s disgust. Fanon takes Freud’s question about the mystery of femininity, ‘What does Woman want?’ (see p. 55) and rephrases it as ‘What does the black man want?’ (Fanon 1986:10). Both questions suggest that they could not be fully answered simply by asking a black man or a woman (although that probably wouldn’t be a bad place to start). Both questions suggest that unconscious dynamics of desire and disavowal in relation to ourselves and to others play a large part in creating our images of ourselves. We construct what we are, in part, by identifying and rejecting what we are not, and it is in the fear and mistrust of what we are not that racism emerges. If we follow Freud’s logic through it is not simply women, or black men, who are mysterious to themselves and others, but everyone. We produce and secure our identities by identifying with some people and disidentifying with others, and this process is never fully conscious. We will never be able to comprehend the deep roots of racism if we look only to conscious beliefs and effects. As Stuart Hall puts it, ‘an account of racism which has no purchase on the inner landscape and the unconscious mechanisms of its effects is, at best, only half the story’ (Hall 1996:17). Freud’s ideas about resistance, fantasy, unconscious desire and identification may help us comprehend the strange formations that racism takes in both the oppressors and in the oppressed, who inevitably internalise the racist images that surround them. So, many of Freud’s ideas have been taken up by twentieth-century critics writing about racism and postcolonialism, even while some of Freud’s parallels, such as the one between children and savages, are implicated in the racialised discourses of the day. As well as the comparison with children, Freud also saw an important parallel in the practices of ‘primitive’ peoples and the practices of obsessive-compulsives and neurotics. He looked around the world of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century diseases of the mind and saw distorted reflections, on the one hand, of tribal religious practices and, on the other, of childhood beliefs. For Freud, civilisation always carried with it the vestiges of what it had supposedly left behind – instinctual urges, belief in magic and an overwhelming awe of powerful, godlike figures.

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