Getting All Ziggy-Zaggy

Before Google Maps and Delta Air Lines, word drifting back on boats from parts unknown had the feel of authentic pre-history. Imagine breaking through the brush in a plateau in the Amazon Basin and finding — ick! — a bunch of dinosaurs, untouched by time, unwrecked by Western European wizardry.

Well, that’s how sociology was done at the turn of the 20th century. Some data would come back from some tribe, they’d think “Aha! the primal sweetness!” and dive in with their intellectual meathooks and cleavers. Big assumption was (a) these tribes hadn’t changed in millenia, and (b) they represented a picture of a civilization — any civilization, including our own — at an earlier stage of development. So we could get to the real object of obsession: our own selves.

This “method” required the armchair socio-anthropologists, back home in England and Prussia, to make massive leaps of logic. Stories filtering in from Australian aborigines (a favorite) and Papua New Guineans (another) were fragmentary, scattershot. They required a LOT of imaginative reconstruction — and I do mean reconstruction. Look at The Golden Bough or Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. These are Tolkien-esque feats of mental empire building.

Which  brings us to Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud’s two flyers at imposing a reading on limited inputs: aka, “Moses and Monotheism” and “Totem and Taboo.” Both reconstructed absolutely bonzo fantasies out of the limited aboriginal data that had primitive tribes, including the Jews, enacting a depraved orgy of incest, patricide and guilt. Yes, Freud looked at Australia and the Hebrew Bible and found the Oedipal Complex in action. You can’t make this stuff up.

Nietzsche starts the “Genealogy” thanking psychologists for “hauling the shameful part of our inner world into the foreground, in order to look right there for the truly effective and operative factor which has determined our development.” He wrote this in 1887; Freud was in college in Paris at the time. But he could have been summarizing “Totem” and “Moses.”

Ziggy believed that civilizations evolve and grow up the same way people do, passing from primitivity to maturity. This evolution necessarily involves turning enacted feelings (i.e., actual incest and daddy-murder) into repressed feelings (i.e., incest fantasies and Oedipal complexes). Otherwise: no civilization. So it seemed reasonable to take contemporary evidence of aboriginal tribes as a window into our own childish minds.

As Freud put it in his essay on “Leonardo da Vinci” (1916): “The psychic development of the individual is a short repetition of the course of development of the race.” It’s quite touching, in a way: the Zig-man thought all people, all civilizations, were essentially the same, and that the maturing modern mind went through all the episodes of our collective history.

Pause tape. An extraordinary claim. These late Victorian Austro-Germans like Freud and Nietzsche were so bold, and wrote so vividly and idiosyncratically, it’s a positive joy to behold. Maybe that’s what genius is: the ability to outrage in original ways.

I don’t know. At any rate, “Totem and Taboo” — based on the aboriginal evidence and the evidence of Freud’s psychoanalytic practice — reconstructs a collective past where a polygamous tribal father who monopolized all the luscious tribal booty was murdered by his sons (on account of said booty monopolization), who then felt guilty and set up all kinds of tribal taboos and resulting repressions.

“Moses and Monotheism” does the same, but with Jews. It was Freud’s last book, written before he died in England, on the run from the rat-bastard Nazis. Jews begged him not to publish it because he claimed Moses was an Egyptian, not a Jew, and that he was murdered in the desert by Jews who were enacting an Oedipal drama.

“The reviews were terrible,” says the New York Times. “The private response was often bitter. And Freud was delighted.” It sold well. He knew he was right. His personal review: “Quite a worthy exit.”

I’ve gone on longer than usual because I feel the need to move along. Freud is a trap: I don’t think he answers the question whether there is or is not a God. Certainly, he thought religion was worse than misguided – that it was a roadblock to progress. He noticed “the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult” – hey! – and suspected religious education.

In short: Zig-inator found the idea of God “so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity, it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals would never be able to rise above this view of life.” Sigh.

But he makes a slip at one point in “Illusion” – a subtle, telling slip that speaks psychoanalytic volumes, I think. If he succeeds in ridding society of the “neurotic relics” of religion, he says, then “our appointed task of reconciling men to civilization will to a great extent be achieved.”

Hold on. Isn’t “reconciling men to civilization” exactly what Freud thinks RELIGION does? The analogy is quite direct: Psychoanalysis is a Religion. But if that’s true, who is God? Two guesses, and the first one doesn’t count.

For those of us made stupid by a religious education, Freud comes out and says: “Psycho-analysis is my CREATION!” [italics, caps and exclamation point added for comic effect]


2 responses to “Getting All Ziggy-Zaggy

  1. I had never heard of “Moses and Monotheism”. Fantastic story! You already have me re-reading “Future of Illusion”, now it looks like I have something else to check out.

  2. Yeah – they’re a lot of fun – really! And quite short. At the end of his life, Freud turned into a cranky guy without a lot of stamina. You might also enjoy this NYTimes article I found about “Moses” from the magazine:

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