The World on the Couch
In his later writings Freud attempted to explain how the collective life of mankind – civilization, culture, and systems of religious belief – had arisen via the same mechanisms of uncommon desire, repression, and oedipal conflict that he believed he had uncovered within the individual psyche. The works devoted to this enterprise, principally Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, Moses and Monotheism, are the most speculative and wide ranging of Freud’s writings, and, in terms of scientific worth (i.e. in terms of evidence, logical necessity, explanatory power) the most universally rejected. Thus even confirmed Freudians find Totem and Taboo with its quaint talk of the “primal horde” and “memory traces of the archaic heritage”, and its reliance on the discredited biological theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, something of an embarrassement.
C.R. Badcock emerges from this book as a Freudian fundamentalist. For him, every word Freud wrote is true if only the right reading of it can be provided and he has undertaken the giant task of re-erecting Freud’s final vision of human destiny. Freud’s later works, in Babcock’s view, far from being the wanderings of a mind past its best, are the proper culmination of the whole Freudian enterprise: the psychoanalysis of Freud’s most important patient – the human race.
His book moves between the two poles entailed by a defence of such a psychoanalysis: he re-reads Freud’s contentions in the light of theorizing not available to Freud (ethnopsychological, anthropological, but mainly biological) and he uncovers the resistance in the patient – the disbelieving human race – to the message Freud so urgently proclaimed.
Central to Freud’s picture of the psyche is the primal trauma of the oedipal complex : all (male) children at about three years of age desire to copulate with their mothers, and kill their fathers who stand in their way and who threaten to castrate them. Freud claimed that this complex of fear and desire has its origin in the remote past of the race when the primal father was killed by the sons in order to possess his women. Parricide was real. “In the beginning was the Deed,” Freud insisted.
Badcock starts hi account from this dogma. As an account, it is somewhat difficult to summarise since its form (appropriately enough) echoes that of a long psychoanalytic report – with backtrackings, dead-ends, repeated returns to key incidents, and so on. It does tell a story, however. We learn how the psyche of the human race travels through seven religio-psycho-sexual stages: animism, totemism, polytheism, monotheism, Catholicism, protestantism, psychoanalysis; each of which arises out of the previous one through a process of instinctual renunciation; the whole sequence corresponding exactly to the stages that we all pass through from infancy to maturity.
A bald synopsis, then. Animism: in the beginning was Primal Man (the “horde”), seed-eating hominid of the grasslands organised into foraging bands. Each band was ruled by a despotic male overlord, narcissistically omnipotent, guarding his females and their young, driving off his sons as soon as they showed sexual interest in his harem, but eventually being killed by one of them when he became too old to defend himself. Babcock cites the recently studied Galada baboon (for whom similar conditions have apparently produced similar behavior) as an almost exact present day model.
Totemism: the expelled males, unencumbered by females and young, could break this pattern; they could join forces and hunt, transferring their parricidal rage onto animals. The resulting hunting techniques could be used to kill the father and acquire his females. But internecine strife over the females would have produced a return to the primal one-male pattern. If hunting bands were to survive, they had to deepen the renunciation of selfhood already required by the co-operative enterprise of hunting and evolve means of sharing spoils. The basis of this was ambivalence: the father was loved as well as hated and feared; parricide followed by rape of mothers and sisters would have engendered guilt and remorse. Thus arose the need for incest avoidance, a need underscored by natural selection since, in the evolution of hunting, males with the greatest ambivalence (parricidal and loving urges together with the capacity for neurotic suppression) would be favoured. But there is a difficulty: succeeding generations of males, having no part in the primal deed, would not have been susceptible to its constraining inhibitions. And the pattern of expelling adolescent males would have re-asserted itself.
The solution, Badcock suggests, was the initiation ceremony in which the young males undergo a mock castration (head biting, circumcision) and a mock expulsion from the tribe carried out in the name of a mock primal father (the totem). According to Badcock the effect of this cruel theatre was to kepp alive the necessary altruistic inhibitions (caused by the original parricide) in the form of an incest taboo within rules of totem-based exogamy. The ceremony was thus a dramatized superego, a collective version of the oedipal stage in children.
Polytheism. The oedipal stage in children is followed, in Freud’s account, by the latency period. The collective manifestation of this, Badcock reasons, was polytheism and its economic form agriculture. The arguments here become too convoluted and self-defended to summarise but one chain of imlications goes as follows. In evolutionary terms, the chief mechanism at work is neoteny or foetalisation – whereby features of the young of a species become fixed into the adult characteristics of succeeding species. Thus human beings exhibit physical and behavioural features of infant apes (and of infant human beings – Badcock jumps from one to the other). Neoteny entailed a protracted rearing period which allowed infantilist delusions (omnipotence of the father, animistic desires) to thrive and promote theism. At this point Freud’s principle of the Return-of-the-Repressed is invoked: the primal father, repressed in totemism, returns with the demise of the totem in the guise of anthropomorphic deities.
But how did agriculture with its delayed gratification and its reliance on women (who have not so far figured) arise? Penis envy is Badcock’s answer. His argument goes as follows. Neoteny, already in action during the evolution of hunting caused the disappearance of the periodicity of female sexual response. With periodic response and availability went the secondary characteristics (enlarged labia etc.) used by females to signal it. Sexual signaling passed to the male. His prominent erect penis (which thereby escaped being diminutised by neoteny and is in fact twice the size of Man’s nearest simian relative) became the means of arousal for females. In instinctual terms women would have felt such a loss in terms of penis envy.
which manifested itself in an unconscious desire to go on doing what females of the species had once been able to do, but which they could do no more and which instead had become the privilege of the penis.
Finally women’s penis envy, via a return of the repressed (in this case, of incestuous libido), found a substitute gratification in sowing seeds in the cleft of mother earth.
Monotheism. After agriculture comes herding. Pastoral societies are predominantly monotheistic, Badcock explains, because the primal ambivalence, which via a return of the repressed becomes once again a central problem, is resolved thus: the affective loving side of the father-totem is displaced on to cattle, the negative side onto a feared, ever watchful god. But matters are complicated by the possibility of an opposed resolution which occurred in a particular form among the early Jews. Here, Badcock goes to Moses and Monotheism in which Freud argued that Moses was an Egyptian, a follower of Akhenaten, the heretical pharaoh who attacked the prevailing polytheism and preached the supremacy of the all-loving, providential sun god Aten. (Akhenaten’ unworried, even cosy, reinvention of Aten is attributed by Badcock to Akhenaten’s homosexually based feminine masochism which produced a passive relation to the father…). The Jews, a pastoral tribe, were thus burdened with a double monotheism, and their religion achieved stability only at the cost of a deep repression of its Atenist elements.
Catholicism. The emergence of Christ as messiah destroyed this stability. His god re-embodied Aten’s benevolence. But Christ’s megalomania, in echoing Akhenaten’s (but without the latter’s objective basis in being an all powerful pharaoh) produced typical paranoid delusions – son of god, end of the world, etc…With St Paul (whose psychopathology, described at length by Badcock, centred on a desire to be sodomised by Christ-as-father) god-the-son became the repository of Atenism and the principal elements of Catholic Christism became established.
Protestantism. Here Badcock is less recondite. He elaborates the well-known connections between suppressed gratification, the rise of science, capitalism, and the self-punitive basis of the protestant ethic. Once again, though, much of the intensity and detail of his characterization relies on locating elements of repressed monotheism that have returned, as well as on individual psychopathologies such as Luther’s anality and Calvin’s obsessional masochism.
Psychoanalysis. Finally, Freud and psychiatry. No another stage in religion, Badcock unconvincingly protests, but the culminating instinctual renunciation which terminates the whole religious illusion. The repression behind civilization – absent in Animism, ritualized in Totemism, anthropomorphically deified in Polytheism, an abstract god in Monotheism, re-deified in Catholicism, a justifying conscience in Protestantism – is unmasked by Psychoanalysis as the superego forbidding incest. The ego, in knowing its oedipal history, overcomes the delusory pleasures of religion in the name of the reality principle. The psychoanalysis of culture concludes with the human psyche reaching adulthood.
An organized response to this unbalanced and totalized Freudian vision of the psyche is out of place here. Instead some comments.
Though Badcock attaches great importance to the “correspondence” between his evolutionary stages of the psyche and different economic forms of society, his picture of these forms is too crude. Little connection can be made between his correspondences and the sort of causation discussed by historians. Take capitalism, for example. In its industrial phase it was connected, in England at least, with the rise of non-conformist Christianity, the emergence of socialism and the birth of romanticism – not to mention the development of evolutionary and social sciences of which Freud’s work was a part. Badcock mentions none of this. As a picture of the Capitalist-Protestant connection or of Freud’s science is deeply shady.
Moreover, if Capitalism is the economic mode corresponding to Protestantism, why doesn’t its successor, Psychoanalysis, correspond to some form of post-Capitalism? Badcock, forced by his own schematism to mention the question, squirms and wriggles at it. The reason soon emerges. He is a rabid anti-socialist. For him, the Marxist critique of Capitalism is merely a secular and generalized version of the paranoid anti-semitism so essential to post-Pauline Christianity. The obvious point – that Marxism is (among other things) indeed a world religion that has emerged from and transcended Christianity – is lost in an hysterical denunciation. All socialisms are disguised perpetuations of the collective psychopathology of Christian masochism, so that Christian charity has become “welfare”, Christian generosity “punitive taxation”, Christian humility “positive hatred of excellence and superiority of any kind”, etc., etc. In short, Marx provides Badcock with an easily fixed-upon anti-Freud.
Badcock ends by reocgnising that the forces of illusion and resistance are everywhere within our decadent culture: Psychoanalysis can only play the deserved all-important “role in world-history” after it has been made into “a system of education and the basis of culture”. After so much sophisticated analysis of religious delusion, such simple minded proselytizing for another messiah makes one think about the author. Like any disciple, he sees only an idealized figure of the master he serves. Certainly, he gives no sign of realizing that Freud wrote and thought within the limits of an identifiable intellectual and cultural milieu. The cause of science, which Freud tried so hard to serve, is not advanced by an unquestioning attachment to his word. To take a single example, Freud’s conception of women and of female sexuality was almost wholly the prejudice of his time. Civilisation and its Discontents voices his mature opinion:
Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life. The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men…it compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable.
No wonder penis envy (which neatly absorbs every creative female act into an absent and transposed masculinity) was so important a principle for him. Badcock’s allegiance to Freud (on this and every issue) is so extreme and so obsessionally elaborated (the overtidy schematism, tunnel vision, defences, outbursts of hysteria, and so on) that one is led to speculate on what version of the Pauline desire to be sodomised by Freud-the-Father lurks in Badcock’s psyche as he makes Freud the culmination of a million year struggle against the primal father.
The Psychoanalysis of Culture is a strange and ambitious book, compelling enough to finish – as well as irksome, interesting, surprising, and ridiculous.