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Freud, history and the return of the repressed

16 August 2006

How psychoanalysis and ancient history meet in Sigmund Freud's final work

In his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, Freud develops the now notorious theory that Moses was not a Hebrew but an Egyptian priest, who far from being chosen by the Jewish people as their leader, himself chose the Jewish people to be his followers.  The origins of monotheism are then to be discovered in the transposition of the Egyptian religion of Aten via Moses to the Jews.

In addition to the postulate of the Egyptian origin of monotheism, at the centre of Freud’s provocative rewriting is the claim that the Jews, in their impatience with the harsh strictures of his monotheistic religion, murdered Moses.  The history of ancient Judaism is the site of an oedipal murder whose consequences for the Jewish people continued to be felt well into Freud’s lifetime.

The structure of Moses and Monotheism is notoriously complex.  The first two essays parade their affiliation to historical writing and historically-inspired biblical scholarship. Freud not only draws on a large range of historical sources, but he also repeatedly anticipates objections to his historical method.

But what is perhaps more interesting is what this remarkable text has to say about the transmission of the historical record.  Freud signals the departure from the historical material of the first two essays towards the analytic focus of the third: “All this, however, is still history, an attempt to fill up the gaps in historical knowledge....Our interest follows the fortunes of Moses and his doctrines, to which the rising of the Jews had only apparently put an end.”

The murder of Moses rather than being the conclusion of his historical story is only its beginning

In other words, the murder of Moses rather than being the conclusion of his historical story is only its beginning.  Far from being the telos of the Freudian analysis, Oedipus is only its starting point.  “It might very well have signified the final end of the Moses episode in the history of the Jewish people. The remarkable thing, however, is that that was not the case – that the most powerful effects of the people’s experience were to come to light only later and were to force their way into reality in the course of many centuries”.

Freud’s interest in historical reconstruction here departs from the positivist premise of the previous chapters. He has no desire to return to the originary moment of monotheism’s conception, nor, unlike in his previous work Totem and Taboo, does he want to prove the historicity of the Oedipal complex by designating the murder of the father as a concrete and specific moment in the history of humanity. Freud’s primary interest in Moses and Monotheism is rather with the complex “reception” of this event in the long history of the West from antiquity to the present. 

For “how” Freud asks “are we to explain a delayed effect of this kind and where do we meet with a similar phenomenon?”  It is at this moment that Freud’s much anticipated analogy makes its appearance: “There is no difficulty in finding an analogy in the mental life of an individual corresponding to this process”.  Moses’ stubborn persistence in the historical consciousness of the Jewish people resembles the mind in which nothing “ever passes away”. The death of the father, even and especially when he has been murdered, can never be erased from the memory of the son.

Drawing on the comparison between delayed recollection and the phenomenon of repressed memories, Freud writes “On reflection, it must strike us that, in spite of the fundamental difference between the two cases – the problem of traumatic neurosis and that of Jewish monotheism – there is nevertheless one point of agreement: namely, in the characteristic that might be described as latency”.

For history, the process of recording the past is, according to Freud, the necessary by-product of the latency period 

What is more, Freud sees this period of “latency” as crucial to the very development of history as such.  For history, the process of recording the past is, according to Freud, the necessary by-product of the latency period.  History is, as it were the symptom of “latency”.  But Freud again challenges the positivist notion of history which he seemingly embraced in the earlier sections of his work.  For here the phenomenon of repression is absolutely crucial to the emergence of the historical record.  As he writes “the people who had come from Egypt brought writing and the desire to write history along with them; but it was to be a long time before historical writing realized that it was pledged to unswerving truthfulness”.

Distortion, fantasy and repression are all integral to the “desire to write history”.  Freud’s distrust of the official historical record seems fully in tune with his hermeneutics of suspicion: “All the tremendous efforts of later times failed to disguise this shameful fact.  But the Mosaic religion had not vanished without leaving a trace; some sort of memory of it had kept it alive – a possibly obscured or distorted tradition. And it was this tradition of a great past which continued to operate (from the background, as it were), which gradually acquired more and more power over people’s minds”.

It is significant that Freud turns to the history of Greece to explain this “unfamiliar idea”: “With our present psychological insight we could, long before Schliemann [the archaeologist who discovered the site of Troy]… have raised the question of where it was that the Greeks obtained all the legendary material which was worked over by Homer and the great Attic dramatists in their master-pieces.  The answer would have had to be that this people had probably experienced in their prehistory a period of external brilliance and cultural efflorescence which had perished in a historical catastrophe and of which an obscure tradition survived in these legends”.

The phenomenon of repression is absolutely crucial to the emergence of the historical record 

In earlier work, Freud had made use of the metaphor of archaeology, claiming that the analyst’s role “is to make out what has been forgotten from the traces it has left behind”.  Here, however, archaeology is no longer functioning as an analogy for psychoanalysis.  In Freud’s fantasy chronology, the spades of psychoanalysis discovered the remains of Troy long before Heinrich Schliemann set sail.  Homer’s Iliad is, for Freud, the neurotic symptom of a repressed trauma. “Early trauma- defence-latency-outbreak of neurotic illness – partial return of the repressed.  Such is the formula which we have laid down for the development of a neurosis.  The reader is now invited to take the step of supposing that something occurred in the life of the human species similar to what occurs in the life of individuals”.

In Freud’s theory of the return of the repressed, I would argue, we can find a compelling theory of historiography. 

Dr Miriam Leonard/Department of Classics and Ancient History

This is an edited version of a paper given at the 4th Marks Conference, Myth and the New Science which took place at the University of Bristol in July 2006.

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