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Sigmund Freud

egins with the concept

egins with the concept of animism, the idea that the world is inhabited by numerous spirits. In animism, animals, plants and people are all seen as animated by a ‘soul’. Examining early forms of religious belief, Freud finds they share several traits with the beliefs of neurotics. Believers in animism and neurotics imagine that the power of the mind to create and change the outside world is very strong; they both have faith in imitative magic, the idea that ‘If I wish it to rain, I have only to do something that looks like rain or is reminiscent of rain’ (Freud 1912–13:138). According to Freud, belief in certain types of magic replaces the laws of nature by psychological laws. Animated, personified figures become extraordinarily controlling of those they rule over and the world around them. Delusions of persecution in the most extreme forms of psychosis resemble tribal peoples’ fear of their deities, who are invested with enormous powers. Freud, for whom the model of Oedipus is always present, sees paranoiacs’ fears as based on an image of a punishing father: A son’s picture of his father is habitually clothed with excessive powers of this kind, and it is found that distrust of the father is intimately linked with admiration for him. When a paranoiac turns the figure of one of his associates into a ‘persecutor’, he is raising him to the rank of a father: he is putting him into a position in which he can blame him for all his misfortunes. (Freud 1912–13:105) The totem animal, and the ambivalence that is manifested towards it, resembles this complex of feelings towards the father. The totem animal is both worshipped and sacrificed; it is seen as untouchable, yet eventually, in a sacred ceremony, it is ingested so that its traits can be absorbed into the self of the believer. These ambivalent dynamics of love and awe, combined with hatred and fear, maintaining a safe distance from the object yet also killing and devouring it violently, display all the key emotions that psychoanalysis finds so prevalent in the childhood passions it explores. What Freud does finally in the last section of Totem and Taboo, ‘The Return of Totemism in Childhood’, is imagine a prehistoric story of the early childhood of mankind to explain the origin of the ambivalent combination of emotions and rituals he finds so central both to primitive religions and to the fears and obsessive practices of neurotics and psychotics. Freud picks up on an idea of Darwin’s that primitive man had once lived in hordes in which one male ruled over the pack, having many wives and children. Based on a model of what was currently believed about some species of ape, Freud suggested that the other male tribe members were forced out of the tribe in order to find mates, since the powerful father figure of the tribe had the monopoly on access to all the females. This expulsion of the younger males worked to prevent incest; it also created enormous amounts of resentment and hatred towards the powerful father figure. Freud imagines the following scenario: One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do, and succeeded in doing, what would have been impossible for them individually … The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. (Freud 1912–13:203)

The sons who had killed and eaten their father in this act of rebellion were then consumed by guilt at what they had done; they remembered that they had loved, as well as hated, the father. They found that the father’s influence and power seemed to persist after his death; that in fact the image of the dead father was more powerful than the threats of the live one had been. The primal horde found themselves compelled by their guilt and fear to install the father as a god figure. As a group they renounced the right to sexual congress with the women (the wives of the father or, in this version of the myth, their own mothers) who had provoked their insurgence. They also installed the prohibition against eating the totem animal (except on the one ritual occasion a year when they re-enacted the group murder of the father by devouring the totem). The myth of the origin of the sense of guilt, and the social bond (when the brothers band together they begin to construct the rudiments of community) that Freud creates in Totem and Taboo, are in reality the Oedipus complex writ large over a prehistory that appears infantile, instead of just over the childhood of the individual. In Totem and Taboo Freud maintains that this primal slaughter of the father was an actual event that really occurred in prehistoric times, the psychic consequence of which haunts us still. However, modern anthropological data contradict the theories that Freud employed as his initial sources. They show no evidence that early humans or pre-human primates were ever organised so as to be dominated by a single male. Working with inaccurate data, Freud creates a fantasy story, but a compelling one. He uses the story to explain the ways in which the repression and control of ambivalent feelings bring individuals together into a social structure. In Freud’s myth the band of brothers create a social structure by taking part in a primitive contract, an agreement that none of them will take the father’s place and that all of them will worship the image of the dead father. In the works in which Freud analyses religion and civilisation, his emphasis on the desire for and fear of father figures returns again and again: Society was now based on complicity in the common crime; religion was based on the sense of guilt and remorse attaching to it; while morality was based partly on the exigencies of this society and partly on the penance demanded by the sense of guilt. (Freud 1912–13:208) Later, when Freud arrives at his theory of the super-ego, it is another version of this internalised punishing father. According to Freud, Christianity and Judaism are, as we shall see, religions of the father. Not coincidentally, all religion appears in Freud’s writings on culture as a staggeringly successful, guilt-inducing, repressive structure – a building block of society, culture and, inevitably, guilt.

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