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Sigmund Freud


CRIMES AGAINST THE FATHER: TOTEM AND TABOO (1912–13) The subtitle of Freud’s article Totem and Taboo, ‘Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Life of Savages and Neurotics’, clearly sets out the terrain it covers. In this lengthy article Freud looks at the ways in which ancient religious practices such as totemism resemble the obsessive, ritualistic actions and thought of modern neurotics. Through this connection Freud comes to formulate an extraordinary founding myth of society. He begins by analysing a number of practices of ‘primitive’ tribes. At the time, anthropology was a speculative field, encompassing many theories unsupported by fieldwork. Freud’s efforts rely on dodgy evidence and come up with historically indefensible, but psychologically intriguing, conclusions. By far the best way to view an article such as Totem and Taboo is as a work of literature or creative mythology, although this is not how Freud himself would have seen it. Freud believed that he was uncovering the psychological basis for the origins of important social institutions such as religion and civilisation. Totem and Taboo attempts to explain the origin of social bonds between people, the origin of the taboo we place on the dead, and the origin of the sense of guilt or conscience that he will later describe as governed by the super-ego. The book is split up into four essays. In the first, ‘The Horror of Incest’, Freud provides an overview of anthropological writing on incest. It is easy to see why anthropological work on incest might intrigue Freud, since early-childhood incestuous desire for the parents is such a crucial element of his theories of sexuality. Surveying work that was done on the rituals and practices of ‘primitive’ people (such as James Frazer’s famous work of nineteenth-century anthropology The Golden Bough), Freud finds that the taboo against incest is stronger within tribal life than it is in civilised society. The tribal social system of exogamy requires men and women in a tribe to find sexual partners from outside the tribe or face ostracisation. Sexual partners from within the tribe are prohibited or considered taboo. Exogamy is connected with the practice of a tribe, or part of a tribe, of adopting a common totem animal for religious purposes. A totem is a specific animal that is sacred to a tribe because it is believed to carry the tribe spirit. A member of one totem is forbidden to mate with a fellow member of the totem – the exogamous rules of the totem require that they look outside their own group. The totem animal is never hunted, and it is considered very bad luck if one is killed mistakenly. Yet usually, on one sacred occasion during the year, the tribe will ritually slaughter and eat its totem animal. Each member of the tribe symbolically takes into his or her self the admired traits of the totem. As we saw in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, an imagined cannibalistic ingestion of a spirit of a person or thing exists as one of the mind’s strategies for dealing with loss. Freud finds the similarities between certain psychic developments and these tribal rituals intriguing. Freud sees the totem object as being subject to a strong sense of ambivalence; once again, we see that negotiating ambivalent feelings is central to psychoanalytic theorising. Something which is forbidden to be touched throughout the year becomes that which is sacrificed and eaten on one sacred occasion; that which is loved and feared becomes that which is destroyed. The second part of Totem and Taboo, ‘Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence’, looks at the ways in which the structure of these primitive religious rites are mirrored by the beliefs of obsessive-compulsives. Taboo, originally a Polynesian word, means that something is sacred and consecrated, but therefore forbidden and unapproachable. Worship it, admire it, fear it, but keep your distance. There is usually no clear-cut explanation for what it is that is taboo to a tribe, but the two basic laws of totemism are ‘not to kill the totem animal and to avoid sexual intercourse with members of

the totem clan of the opposite sex’ (Freud 1912–13:85). The Rat Man similarly created taboos for himself. His strange rules of behaviour, like those of Freud’s ‘primitive’ people, initially appeared to have no rhyme or reason. But, as we remember, Freud found that the Rat Man’s obsessive-compulsive beliefs could be traced back to emotional ambivalence, most powerfully to his ambivalence towards his father, who denied him his Oedipal desires and whom he saw as getting in the way of his attempts to love women. In Totem and Taboo Freud traces out a logic that connects these animal taboos with the incest taboo and with modern forms of neurotic disease. Yet he also points out a central difference between tribal taboos and obsessive illness. Taboo is a public social structure, while neurosis is a private disease. Taboo structures and organises society, while neurosis makes it difficult to function in society. By comparing the two Freud suggests that a modern social structure, such as organised religion, may also resemble a mass, shared, social neurosis. One of the Rat Man’s most disturbing beliefs was that his father might still appear on his doorstep and judge him, despite the fact that he had been dead for years. In his anthropological work Freud looks at this ancient religious belief in the return of the spirits of the dead. He finds some interesting similarities between them and the ways in which his patients continued to be ‘haunted’ by their dead, but still powerful, parents. Tribes often had taboos on the dead – people were forbidden to speak the name of a dead relative or friend, or to touch the body; often there were special religious rites that had to be followed about disposing of the body. If these strictures were disregarded the dead would return as furious, haunting demons. Freud sees this fear of the demonic return of the dead as related to the survivors’ complicated and guilt-ridden feelings towards the dead: When a wife has lost a husband or a daughter her mother, it not infrequently happens that the survivor is overwhelmed by tormenting doubts (to which we give the name of ‘obsessive self-reproaches’) as to whether she may not herself have been responsible for the death of this cherished being through some act of carelessness or neglect. (Freud 1912–13:116) These self-reproaches come about because of a conflict that arises between mourning and a secret sense of satisfaction. The mourner’s sense of guilt and self-blame emerges from the fact that the mourned object was both loved and hated. This process of conflict is dealt with by the psychical mechanism known in psychoanalytic terminology as projection. In projection: The hostility, of which the survivors know nothing and moreover wish to know nothing, is ejected from internal perception into the external world, and thus detached from them and pushed on to someone else. (Freud 1912–13:119) When the dead who we think we simply loved appear to return as ghosts, it is because we have projected our hostility on to them. Our own hostility gets turned around, projected on to the outside world as being directed towards us, rather than emerging from us. The dead, therefore, appear threatening – returning malevolently to haunt our lives. The self-reproaches that Freud associates with the conscience are also associated with this turning-round of emotion, our need to repress hostile feelings and replace them with positive ones: ‘Conscience is the internal perception of the rejection of a particular wish operating within us’ (Freud 1912–13:124). The third essay in Totem and Taboo, ‘Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts’,

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