The God of Freud and the Jewish Homeland

I re-visited the Freud museum in South Hampstead today, and was also lucky enough to find a copy of the Guardian on the tube, so my post marries the two events. I was very interested in the Middle East peace/Israel-Palestine resumption stories, but I also had my head half stuck in a book closer to the subject of the day: Dr. Sigmund.

It is now commonplace in new atheist literature to hold Freud up as a cohort to the idea that religion is little more than a childish phase. And I suppose this is understandable since Freud’s early essay called The Future of Illusion calls religion just that: an illusion. But his position did take a huge modification in his later, maturer years.

Sam Harris, interestingly enough, in his book The End of Faith, rejected Freud as a psychoanalyst informed by Harris’ own neuroscientific background, but held in esteem Freud’s riposte on the notion of God being akin to a missing Father. What Harris did forget to mention was that it was neuroscience that informed Freud’s psychoanalytic base, and in fact, further, it was the shortfall of this discipline regarding the notion of hysteria that Freud was forced to drop neuroscience, or in other words, neuroscience could not go far enough to recognise the genesis of the hysterical mind.

Indeed Freud promoted a number of different stylistic attitudes toward the question of God, and these attitudes can be divided into two collectives, which I will now discuss. Freud’s view that the historical arrival of monotheism (which he attributes to Moses’ being an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten, and not, as is erroneously assumed, his being originally Hebrew. As such, in a letter he told Arnold Zweig “Moses created the Jews” and, in his last substantial book Moses and Monotheism stated that “it was not God who chose the Jews … but Moses”) meant that man’s relation to God “could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father.” But at this stage, this reunion of man and a monotheistic God signified nothing but a childish illusion. As Ana-Maria Rizzuto pointed out in her excellent book Why Did Freud Reject God: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation from as early as his youth, Freud viewed God as a mere childhood creation, an element of the mental space in which to direct wishes (prompting his Father Jakob to present his son with a copy of the Philippson Bible, complete with a pleading dedication for Sigmund to part with his youthful scepticism). Freud suspected, in some later reflections of his case study on Sergei Pankejeff (better known as Wolf Man), that young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down”. In other words, that it was a sign of maturity to escape the domain of God (in direct contradiction to his Father’s message, written inside the bible gift previously mentioned, to “return to [God] in maturity”). Freud held this view until 1935 when a change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of God on thought and enquiry, after all the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation. Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation.

Two days into writing his last book on Moses, three secretaries visited Freud from the Royal Society who offered him the chance to sign the society’s charter book. A unique occasion, too, since it was only the king, an honorary member of the society, who had the book brought to him to sign, but on account of Freud being ill, an exception was made. As of then it was writ large that Freud joined the top names in scientific history, Darwin, Newton etc. So it was hardly surprising that Freud had felt some reservations about his present study, a speculative work that was supported only by limited evidence. In fact, its first reviewers were rather scathing about it. Martin Buber, for example, the Jewish theologian poured scorn on it as being “regrettable” and “groundless”. But many commentators with the privilege of hindsight, one being Mark Edmundson in his stimulating book The Death of Sigmund Freud, received the book as being “better disposed toward faith than any other of Freud’s prior work.” He elaborates “[t]he pleasures of sight, Freud insists, are intense, nearly instinctive pleasures … [and] to renounce the visible in the interest of the unseen is an enormously difficult human task … less intense, but more valuable in the long run”. That is to say, more intellectually valuable in the sense that the privileging of sensory perception was minimised in order to discern the abstract idea. For Freud, Moses probably struggled with the effort to believe in an invisible God when there were multitudinous amounts of idolatry religions at his beck and call. And this is why Freud held Moses in such high esteem, since his adherence to monotheism mirrors the correct process of human consciousness in general, from an infantile worship of the present thing, to the introspective rigour of mental labour (indicative of monotheism).

As we can see, Freud considered God for its mental utility function, and its timing was also interesting; just after Freud was forced to leave Vienna and antisemitism became a governmental policy of the Nazis. It was at this backfooting for the Jews that Freud became intimate with Egyptology. But what of Freud’s rather more intimate relationship with the Jewish homeland, via one of his most distinguished students.

I wonder if all the trouble regarding Palestine and Israel – which Obama may well be on the way to mending, and given his timing, when the Arab world is having its own doubts about Iran – would’ve occurred had Princess Marie Bonaparte achieved her original plans for European Jews circa 1945. Great granddaughter of Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, she was on speaking terms with Sigmund Freud, who referred to her as “our Princess”. She provided economic support for Freud to leave occupied territory and emigrate to England But although her philanthropy stopped there, her original plan was to purchase a section of southern California to be used as a Jewish homeland. All well and good, but imagine what would happen, if a few belligerent émigrés had decided that the original population of southern California were to be perceived as nothing more than second-class citizens at best, bullet fodder at worst. The course of history would have changed rapidly, and the last 60 years would’ve been a lot different.

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One Response to The God of Freud and the Jewish Homeland

  1. Pingback: Death, Alexander McQueen, Judas and Martin Luther King « Raincoat Optimism

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