In Our Present-Day White Christian Culture
Jacqueline Rose on Freud and the rise of Zionism
Ever since the fall of Baghdad, when looters went rampaging through the city, a centuries-old assumption about ‘the people’ has lurked, barely spoken, beneath the ghastly aftermath of the war. It is that the people, meaning ‘people en masse’, are incapable of restraining themselves. In the case of Iraq, two further assumptions are in play. First, people freed from the yoke of oppressive dictatorship are most at risk: the excesses of the Iraqi populace are laid at the door of Saddam Hussein at the very moment he loses his power to control them, and not, for example, seen as the responsibility of the occupying armies. Second, the Iraqi people are especially prone to such behaviour because they fall outside the civilising processes of the West. Thus beneath Donald Rumsfeld’s magnificently evasive ‘Stuff happens’ – the formula allows us to think for a second that such things might happen to anyone, including presumably us, or even him – we glimpse a much harsher, discriminatory form of judgment. Between dictatorship and barbarity, Iraq stands condemned: one reason, no doubt, democracy has to be imported and cannot be entrusted to the Iraqis themselves, even while the images from Abu Ghraib suggest that there is no foundation for such self-serving discriminations between them and us.
Perhaps one of the most shocking things Freud did in Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego in 1921 was to cut from an image of the ‘masses’, not far from that of an uncontrollable mob, to the church and the army, where the most passionate, not to say sacred, group identifications are formed. Freud’s word is ‘die Massen’ which, until Jim Underwood translated it for the new Penguin edition as ‘masses’, had always been rendered as ‘group’.[*] Certainly ‘die Massen’ is ambiguous. A translation more faithful to its spirit might be ‘collectivity’, since Freud’s question, throughout the texts which from 1914 onwards deal with this issue, is what makes individuals bind themselves into entities of more than one. But ‘collectivity’ sidesteps the problem, since it avoids the awkward, but politically suggestive, blurring of boundaries between masses and groups. Or, say, between looters and the army. Or between Iraqis running wild in the street and American and British soldiers in Baghdad jails obeying vicious orders from their superiors.
‘We don’t feel like we were doing things we weren’t supposed to, because we were told to do them,’ Lynndie England says. The fact that such orders can be traced back through the highest chain of command will not stop her from becoming a scapegoat in the United States and Britain alike. It is hard to keep moralism on a leash. In the case of Iraq, the stakes are even higher because the violations are not those of one or two individuals whom it is easy to hate, but of a group – a group moreover that is meant to embody our national pride. At moments it has felt as if exposing this reality, rather than the reality itself, were the worst offence. Lynndie England and her partners in crime will be despised less for the appalling things they have done than for shattering the complacency of Western values, for letting the world see. The lone criminal can be distanced, but not the policies of a government that, democratically elected, represents each and every one of us. We cannot palm our atrocities off on a dictator.
The people can be cruel; our institutions vicious. Knowing this, however, may not in the longer term make any difference. It might even make matters worse. According to Freud, it is when people’s self-love is threatened that they resort to extremes. Far from being humbled, they tend to lash out in narcissistic self-defence. We are in a vicious circle if it is true that there are no limits to what people will do to hold onto their belief in themselves.
It isn’t a coincidence that Freud’s first extensive analysis of people en masse came after his study of narcissism, which had obliged him completely to revise his model of the mind. His early distinction between love and hunger, between the drives of desire and those of self-preservation, broke down when he realised that people can be their own preferred object. A group is nothing if not the struggle to preserve its ideal image of itself. This is not an ‘ideal’ in the sense of the ideal of democracy invoked so often in justification of an illegal war, the sort of ideal that is set in front of us as something to which we, and the world, can aspire. After Freud, things are ethically more complicated, in that such apparently unobjectionable ideals can be seen as cover for something far less disinterested. What if, in struggling, say, to ‘impose democracy’, we are in fact servicing an ideal version of ourselves?
Freud was led to this analysis of narcissism at the outbreak of the First World War. ‘The Disillusionment of the War’ was the title of his first essay in Thoughts for the Time on War and Death (1915). What was being shattered by the war, along with the lives of the people it trampled, was the self-idealisation of the West. Then, the greatest shock was that war could break out between the civilised nations of Europe. Freud was not talking about the pre-emptive warfare of America’s New Century against the countries of the East, but his idea of what war should be like – a belief falling to pieces as he wrote – bears repeating. ‘We saw [such a war],’ Freud writes, ‘as an opportunity for demonstrating the progress of comity among men since the era when the Greek Amphictyonic Council proclaimed that no city of the league might be destroyed, nor its olive groves cut down, nor its water supply stopped’. ‘There would of course,’ he continues, ‘be the utmost consideration for the non-combatant classes of the population . . . And again, all the international undertakings and institutions in which the common civilisation of peacetime had been embodied would be maintained.’ Such a war would have produced ‘horror and suffering’ enough, he recognises, ‘but it would not have interrupted the development of ethical relations between the collective individuals of mankind – the peoples and states.’
In a strange way, warfare, for Freud, is the deadly repository of our most tenacious and precarious self-idealisation. Because it is so ugly it must be good: civilised in its conduct and civilised in its aims. In psychoanalytic terms, you might say that narcissists are so frantic and demanding because of the extent of the internal damage they are battling to repair. Paradoxically, it is because war is so awful that we invest with such ferocity in the belief that it can be the bearer of civilisation to all peoples. Freud’s bruising catalogue of the reality of the war in which such hope had been so naively invested is worth quoting at length:
Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought – disillusionment . . . It disregards all the restrictions known as International Law, which in peacetime the states had bound themselves to observe; it ignores the prerogative of the wounded and the medical service, the distinction between the civil and military sections of the population . . . It tramples on all that comes its way as if there were to be no future . . . It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.
Even more important perhaps is what such conduct does to the relationship between the citizen and the state. It is precisely because the state is the representative of the people, precisely because we are a democracy, that present disillusionment is so intense. What is falling apart is the belief in the virtue of representative institutions. It is starting to cross the minds of the citizens that states might embody the very evils they use to justify wars against other – totalitarian or what today are called ‘rogue’ or ‘failed’ – states. ‘Peoples,’ Freud continues, ‘are more or less represented by the states which they form, and these states by the governments which rule them.’ But today the citizen is faced with the dawning recognition – the ‘horror’ to use Freud’s term – that ‘the state has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrongdoing, not because it desires to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolise it, like salt and tobacco.’ (Freud uses the same word, ‘der Schrecken’, ‘horror’ or ‘terror’, to categorise both war and the people’s loss of faith.) A belligerent state not only breaks the law in relation to the enemy; it also violates the principles which should hold between itself and its citizens. ‘A belligerent state,’ Freud writes, ‘permits itself every such misdeed, every act of violence as would disgrace the individual.’ No surprise, then, that faced with the disclosure of such misdeeds as those at Abu Ghraib, the state will rush to return them to the citizen precisely as ‘individual disgrace’. Furthermore, the state uses secrecy and censorship to rob its citizens of the critical defences they might need in order to deal with the reality of war. Truth, we have so often been told, is the first casualty of war. We tend to understand this as referring simply to the censorship of information, but Freud is making another point. Numbing its citizens’ capacity for judgment is one of the chief war aims of the modern state.
This is, I think, one of Freud’s most radical moments. Of course we can read these essays at least in part as his response to the disillusionment of finding his own nation on the wrong side of the First World War: ‘We live in hopes that the pages of an impartial history will prove that that nation, in whose language we write and for whose victory our dear ones are fighting, has been precisely the one which has least transgressed the laws of civilisation.’ ‘But at such a time,’ he continues, ‘who dares to set himself up as judge in his own cause?’ But inside this lament is one of his fiercest defences of the people against the democratic state’s monopoly and abuse of violence. It isn’t just that the state demands of its citizens a form of virtue from which it so blatantly abstains itself; or that it suppresses the critical faculties of the people at a time when they are more in need of the freedom to exercise them than ever; or that it has broken a bond of trust between itself and its citizens at a time when, in the name of patriotism, it is demanding ever more sacrifices. All this is bad enough. Worse however, like an insane parent – passing over for the moment that all parents are a little bit insane – who insists they are being cruel to be kind, the state insists that its worst belligerence is a virtue.
The greatest sacrifice the people are being asked to make on behalf of the state is to give up their right not to believe in it. If there is one thing worse than disillusionment, it is not being allowed to recognise that you are disillusioned. (As Winnicott once said, it doesn’t matter what a child feels provided they are allowed to feel it.) There is a lie at the heart of democracy if the state will sacrifice its citizens’ freedom to take dissent to the limit, and indeed its relationship to them, for the sake of its own violently enacted and no less violently preserved self-regard. Tony Blair’s increasingly desperate statements of conviction would then simply be an inflated example of the trend. ‘I believe in myself’ is the last great performative statement of an idealist on the rocks. It also exposes the lie since, believing in himself and himself alone, he clearly neither believes in, nor belongs to, the people. Righteousness is then a flag of honour that leads a nation to war. ‘It is crucial,’ Winnicott argued in his 1940 paper ‘Discussion of War Aims’, that ‘we should win a military and not a moral victory’: ‘If we fight to exist we do not claim to be better than our enemies.’ How many times have we been told in the past few weeks, as though it should make us feel better, that what was done in Abu Ghraib is nothing compared to the executions and tortures of Saddam Hussein. As Ahdaf Soueif put it in a recent article in the Guardian: ‘Hussein is now the moral compass of the West.’
Humiliation is a central component of torture. In Abu Ghraib, as many commentators have pointed out, the humiliation is targeted deliberately at Muslim sensibilities about sexual decorum and pride. Behind the humiliation lies a carefully thought-out policy of psychic abuse. ‘The purpose of all coercive techniques,’ states the ‘Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual’ produced by the CIA for Honduras in 1983, ‘is to induce psychological regression . . . Regression is basically a loss of autonomy.’ The manual is an updated version of the ‘Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual’ of 1963, according to which such regression has to be traumatically induced: ‘There is an interval . . . of suspended animation, a kind of psychological shock or paralysis. It is caused by a traumatic or sub-traumatic experience which explodes, as it were, the world that is familiar to the subject as well as his image of himself within that world . . . At this moment the source is far more open to suggestion, far likelier to comply.’
This is almost exactly the scenario laid out by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas in his 1995 article ‘The Structure of Evil’ when he describes the ‘psychic death’ or ‘radical infantilisation’ that the serial killer imposes on his victim: ‘With the total collapse of trust and the madness expressed by sudden dementia of the real, the victim experiences an annihilation of adult personality structures and is time-warped into a certain kind of infantile position, possibly depending now for existence itself on the whim of incarcerated madness.’ Incarcerated madness will do nicely for Abu Ghraib. Crucial in both cases is that the subject is made to regress to a state of childlike dependency, at the same time losing all the reference points that would allow him to find himself even in this regressed, infantile world. The key, as the CIA manual puts it, is ‘loss of autonomy’. Far from raising the world to heights of civilisation, the ruling powers of the new century seem to be spending a lot of energy trying to turn both citizens and enemies into children.
Freud was not always generous towards the people. He was a snob. ‘“The people",’ he writes to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, in August 1883, ‘judge, think, hope and work in a manner utterly different from ourselves.’ In a letter to her sister, written two years later, after he had spent time wandering the streets of Paris, he describes them as a ‘different species, "uncanny"’. ‘I feel they are all possessed of a thousand demons,’ Freud continues his letter to Minna Bernays. ‘I don’t think they know the meaning of shame or fear; the women no less than the men crowd round nudities as much as they do round corpses in the morgue.’ Freud wrote this in 1885, and in so doing handed to the people the aberrations of sexuality which it would take him another twenty years to theorise as the unconscious property of us all. But, even as he takes his distance, he recognises that the people have access to a truth about the civilisation from which he excludes them. From his letter to Martha of August 1883, it becomes clear that the ‘people’ are ‘utterly different’ not due to some inherent failing of their nature, but because they are so beset. The ‘poor people’, who become just ‘the poor’, are ‘too helpless, too exposed to behave like us’; in their ‘lack of moderation’ they are compensating for being ‘a helpless target for all the taxes, epidemics, sicknesses and evils of social institutions’. The people have no moderation because they have no illusions to maintain – in this they are way ahead of the disillusioned citizens of war-torn Europe in 1914. Why on earth should the people believe in the benign power of social institutions?
By the time Freud gets to The Future of an Illusion in 1927, his early recognition that the poor are the bearers of the ‘evils of social institutions’ has become even more political and precise:
If a culture has not got beyond the point where the satisfaction of some participants requires the oppression of others, maybe the majority (and this is the case with all contemporary cultures), then, understandably, the oppressed will develop a deep hostility towards a culture that their labour makes possible but in whose commodities they have too small a share.
‘It goes without saying,’ he concludes, ‘that a culture that fails to satisfy so many of its participants, driving them to rebellion, has no chance of lasting for any length of time, nor does it deserve [to].’
The people expose the evils of social institutions, the injustices of culture (what Freud refers to elsewhere as ‘our present-day white Christian culture’). In doing so, they reveal unconscious desires which, however shameless (indeed because they are so shameless), implicate every one of us. In Mass Psychology, he describes the mass as laying bare ‘the unconscious foundation that is the same for everyone’. Go back to the letter of 1885: ‘The women no less than the men crowd round nudities as much as they do round corpses in the morgue.’ Suddenly this brings to mind the images of grinning soldiers crowding round the abject inmates of Abu Ghraib. These images are pornographic, as many have pointed out, but in a very specific form. They trade on the unconscious association of sex and death. You don’t have to accept Freud’s vision of the mob, since that is after all what it is, a vision in which we recognise all the stereotypes of bourgeois fear, to notice that he has run a line from perversion to truth. Civilisation is unjust; our most venerated social institutions are evil; be wary of pointing the finger at the individual who disgraces us, since we are all of us perverts in our dreams.
‘Well may the citizen of the world stand helpless in a world that has grown strange to him,’ Freud writes in ‘The Disillusionment of the War’. But, he adds, ‘there is something to be said in criticism of his disappointment’: ‘It is not justified, since it consists in the destruction of an illusion.’ At this unexpected turning point of his essay, we discover that what Freud means by ‘disillusionment’ is not quite what we have been led to expect. Our mistake, it turns out, was to have believed in the first place. In this context, war, at the very moment when the state is doing its utmost to subdue the critical judgment of citizens, might provide us with a rare opportunity. Like ‘the people’, who of course need no such prompting or crisis, we can now see things, see people, as they really are. ‘In reality, our fellow citizens have not sunk so low as we feared, because they had never risen as high as we believed.’ This is not, finally, a narcissistic lament (‘How have we fallen’ or ‘This does not represent the America that I know,’ to cite Bush’s more recent phrase); it is at once more modest and more devastating. ‘White Christian culture’ should stop kidding itself.
Much follows from this. There is no such thing, Freud states, as ‘eradicating’ evil. The impulses that constitute the ‘deepest essence’ of human nature are ‘neither good nor bad’ in themselves. He will condemn actions but never the drives from which they stem. It is a central tenet of psychoanalysis that if we can tolerate what is most disorientating – disillusioning – about our own unconscious, we will be less likely to act on it, less inclined to strike out in a desperate attempt to assign the horrors of the world to someone or somewhere else. It is not, therefore, the impulse that is dangerous, but the ruthlessness of our attempts to be rid of it. This might be one reason illegally occupying armies, who can neither settle nor face their own conscience, become so brutalised – it is their own discomfort they are trying to erase.
If Freud was wary of national passion, it was because it was something he had experienced directly as a Jew. ‘Whenever I felt an inclination to national enthusiasm,’ he states in an address read to the Vienna branch of the Jewish cultural organisation, B’Nai B’rith, on his 70th birthday, ‘I strove to suppress it as being harmful and wrong, alarmed by the warning examples of the peoples among whom we Jews had lived.’ One such example was an incident on a train that he recounts in another letter to Martha in 1883. After opening a window, he meets fierce resistance from his co-travellers, backed by the shout: ‘He’s a dirty Jew.’ ‘Even a year ago I would have been speechless with agitation,’ he writes, ‘but now I am different. I was not in the least frightened of that mob.’ Under the pressure of race hatred the voice of one man turns a group of passengers on a train into a ‘mob’. The easy slide suggests that whenever Freud says ‘mass’ or ‘mob’ he is speaking as a Jew. His response on that occasion shows how rapidly humiliation can provoke a murderous rage: ‘I asked the one to keep to himself his empty phrases that impressed me not at all, and the other to step up and take what was coming to him. I was quite prepared to kill him.’
It may have been because of the shock of that transition from hate to hate, because he had felt it running through his own veins, that Freud would remain wary of all collective identifications throughout his life, even when, right at the end, they came in the form of an answering national passion on the part of his own people. Freud’s life was shadowed by the rise of Zionism. In 1897, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria confirmed the anti-semite Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna, having previously refused to do so three times. From that point on, no Jew in Austria could ignore the fact that Europe was moving against the emancipatory tide. In the same year, 1897, Theodor Herzl presided over the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Like Freud, Herzl lived in Vienna. When the emperor had refused to confirm Lueger as mayor, Freud allowed himself an extra ration of cigars, whereas Herzl saw no reason to celebrate (more Freudian perhaps than Freud, he believed that the refusal would simply drive race hatred underground).
And yet although Freud shares this history, and had himself been the target of abuse as a Jew, when offered an opportunity to express public support for Zionism, he declines. ‘I cannot do what you wish,’ he writes in 1930 to Chaim Koffler of the Jewish Agency, who had written to prominent European Jews asking them to criticise the British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem which had followed the Arab riots of that year: ‘Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgment of Zionism does not permit this.’ Freud expresses his sympathy with the goals of Zionism – the university in Jerusalem, the prosperity of the agricultural settlements – but what he will not join in, or put his name to, is mass identification. He will neither rouse nor inflame. He wants nothing to do with national identity raised to a pitch: ‘It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically burdened land . . . But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy.’ Freud’s critique of political Zionism arises from his distrust of the group mind. As a Jew he dreads the mob, as a Jew he pulls back from national passion – the Zionist move from such dread to such passion is one he is not willing to make. Like all collective enthusiasms, Zionism goes too far. ‘I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust.’ Unlike most of the leaders of the world today, Freud can praise the resilience and endeavour, not to say survival, of his people without having to exempt them from baseness.
Writing in 1932 to Arnold Zweig, who had just returned from a visit to Palestine, Freud describes this as a ‘tragically mad land’ that ‘has never produced anything but religions, sacred frenzies, presumptuous attempts to overcome the outer world of appearance by the inner world of wishful thinking.’ This could, of course, be seen as pure Orientalism. But Freud is not immune from the pull which he so soberly dissects: he did, after all, describe ‘national enthusiasm’ as something he had had to suppress. ‘We hail from there,’ he writes. ‘Our forebears lived there for perhaps half, perhaps a whole millennium . . . It is impossible to say what heritage from this land we have taken over into our blood and nerves.’ Like many Zionists, Freud sees this affiliation passing down through the generations in the blood. But for him this is no ground for entitlement. In his letter to Koffler, his strongest criticism, impatience even, is reserved for the process whereby a people, historically and symbolically, burden the land as the foundation of their claim on it: ‘I can claim no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thus offending the feelings of the natives.’
‘Men are ruled by the simple and the fantastic,’ Herzl stated in conversation with the Bavarian nobleman Maurice de Hirsch, one of the magnates whose support he was seeking. ‘It is astonishing how unintelligently the world is ruled.’ ‘Nations,’ as Freud observed, ‘obey their passions far more readily than their interests.’ Freud’s caution is Herzl’s opportunity. ‘Believe me,’ Herzl writes in a subsequent letter to Hirsch, ‘the politics of an entire people – especially a people scattered all over the earth – can be manipulated only through imponderables that float in thin air.’ Equally aware of the ‘imponderable’ impulses that drive a people towards their goals, Herzl sees this as a force to be manipulated, Freud as a reason for fear. ‘Now judge for yourself,’ Freud ends his letter to Koffler, ‘whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by an unjustified hope.’
Being Jewish means belonging to a group. For Freud, this was not obvious. He gloried in his isolation, even while he bemoaned the defections of his former followers and the disloyalty of the clan. But once he had turned his attention to narcissism, all the works on group identification – Thoughts for the Time on War and Death, Mass Psychology, The Future of an Illusion, Civilisation and Its Discontents – came thick and fast. He knew that the fierceness with which a group builds and defends its identity was the central concern of modern times. But he also knew that however persecuted a people – his people – might be (and of course he would not live to see the worst), to answer national passion with national passion was to put yourself, and those whom you inevitably confront, in peril. National enthusiasm was ‘harmful’ and ‘wrong’. Today we can see that Freud’s predictions were mistaken: the people were not ‘deluded’, or their hopes ‘unjustified’ – there is a Jewish state in Palestine. But his diagnosis is still apt: he had grasped the power of Zionism to propel itself into the world regardless of the obstacles. It is not the land of Palestine but Zionism that has always been happy to represent itself as ‘overcoming the outer world of appearance by the inner world of wishful thinking’. The famous epigraph to Herzl’s 1902 novel, Altneueland, reads: ‘If you will, it is no fairytale.’ ‘We must,’ Chaim Weizmann, the future president of Israel, said in 1919, ‘create our title out of our wish to go to Palestine . . . There is no power on earth that can stop the Jews from getting to Palestine.’ Watching the rise of Jewish persecution and Zionism together, Freud was well placed to ask the question that has returned to us so brutally since 9/11: how do you save a people at one and the same time from hatred of others and from itself?
Freud’s last great work – Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion (I take the title from Underwood’s new translation) – is his final, urgent attempt to address this question.[†] He makes Moses an Egyptian, thereby ‘robbing’ his people of their ‘greatest son’. Arguing that the monotheistic religion was founded not once but twice, by two disparate peoples brought together through the upheavals of their history, he sows dissension in the tribe. He does not want his people unified. Or, if he does, he wants them unified differently: not created once in an act of divinely sanctioned triumphant recognition, which henceforth will brook no argument, but torn internally by a complex, multiple past. He wants, as Edward Said stressed, a group that might be capable of imagining itself as founded by a stranger.
Above all, Freud wants the Jewish people, and through them all people, to imagine the unimaginable: to contemplate the possibility that the most binding social ties are forged through an act of violence. Freud believes that the first Moses, who led the people from Egypt, had taken from the Pharaoh Amenhotep and bestowed on the Jewish people an exacting monotheistic faith which was too much for them to bear. They turned on their leader and slaughtered him. It was only when, generations later, the lost people of that first traumatic reckoning met with the second Moses, a Midianite priest, worshipper of the volcanic god Yahweh, and the two peoples merged, that slowly what was valuable about the first religion could be remembered, and became the defining feature of Jewish belief. Right at the heart of the most fervently held conviction Freud plants doubt (we believe because we are not sure). Right at the heart of group adherence, he places killing. In ‘The Disillusionment of the War’, he wrote that we had not ‘sunk so low as we had feared’ because we had ‘never risen as high as we believed’. Now he spells it out. We are all killers or capable of being so, if only unconsciously. This isn’t, however, the soft insight it might at first appear to be, as in: we are all murderers at heart. By binding this insight into group life, Freud drives a stake through collective self-idealisation, as if he were asking nations to consider a very different, less glorious, form of reckoning with themselves. To be a member of a group is to be a partner in crime. You are guilty by association.
We do not have to accept the historical truth of this narrative, which is eccentric to say the least, to see the force of what Freud has done. As the new millennium already bears witness, war is almost invariably justified in terms of an outside danger or threat: the other is the aggressor, it is only in order to survive that you kill. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Israel-Palestine, everything is permitted in terms of the ‘war on terror’: the law is dispensable, the ends justify the means. Freud offers a counter-history. He takes slaying, at which subjects en masse excel, and hands it back to the people. What effect might it have on today’s rhetoric on terror, or on its accompanying refrain of good versus evil, if it were acknowledged that what binds a people together, what drives a nation self-righteously across the globe, are the unspoken crimes and failings of its own past?
For Freud to have taken such a line on Jewish self-history was high risk – the book has been accused of anti-semitism. But out of this traumatised, broken vision of the Jewish people something positive, for the Jews and for the group in general, emerges. Monotheism was ruthless, exacting, intolerant – this is why the first Moses was slain. But, in Freud’s version, it also carried with it the idea of justice, and Amenhotep had been a pacifist. According to tradition, he rejected hatred and acts of violence, sublimating all aggression, in the words of Freud’s contemporary psychoanalyst, Karl Abraham, ‘to an unusual degree’. Yahweh, the deity of the second clan, was a conqueror. ‘For a people on the point of taking violent possession of fresh places to settle,’ Freud writes, ‘the god Yahweh was undoubtedly more suitable.’ Now we can perhaps see more clearly the advantages of having two Moses. Freud’s saga is a political narrative for our times. There were two possible paths for the Jewish people to take, and their history – in ways borne out so dramatically today – would be a struggle between them. Eventually, the first Moses, implacable but just, breaks through. In Freud’s narrative, justice not settlement, ethics not land, enables the Jewish people to survive: ‘It was only the idea of this other god that enabled the people of Israel to survive all the blows of fate and has kept it alive to this day.’ Freud, we could say, takes the Jewish people’s greatest son away with one hand, and gives him back with the other. By the end of Moses the Man, the Jews have completed the transformation from mass into people; they have become an elite: ‘That Yahweh was finally usurped by the god of Moses is evidence of special psychic aptitude in the mass that had become the Jewish nation.’ If only obliquely, and through the travails of their history, Freud restores the pride of the Jewish people.
What Freud teaches us, in a struggle present on almost every page of his text, is how hard it is for any collectivity to avoid the potentially militant self-possession of the clan. The problem, not least for the Jewish people, will not go away. Hannah Arendt, replying to Gershom Scholem’s criticism of her study of Adolf Eichmann, and in particular to his remark, ‘Of course I do not believe in God; I believe in the Jewish people’, wrote: ‘The greatness of the people was once that it believed in God, and believed in him in such a way that its trust and love towards him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that?’
Freud could hardly have anticipated that the split between his two figures of Moses, between conquering settlement and a people living in justice, would have such an afterlife, that it would become the most disturbing and intractable legacy of the founding, ten years after he wrote Moses the Man, of the Israeli nation-state. In March this year, Rabbis for Human Rights took out a full-page advertisement in Haaretz to express their support for their colleague Rabbi Arik Ascherman, on trial in Jerusalem for trying to prevent the demolition of two Palestinian homes: ‘Zion will only be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through acts of righteousness.’ The first Moses, Freud writes, ‘held out for men, as their highest goal, a life lived in righteousness and truth’. Whatever it is that Freud wanted for, and even finally gave back to his people, it was not, I would argue, Israel as the country has become, or indeed nationalism in any of the forms in which we know it today.
[*] Underwood’s translation of this essay will be included in a volume of the Penguin Freud entitled Mass Psychology, which is due in November.
[†] This essay will also be included in the volume of the Penguin Freud entitled Mass Psychology.