Freud and the Non-European (Book Review)

Author:  Said, Edward
Publisher:  London. Verso, 2003
Reviewed By:  Harold B. Davis, Spring 2005, pp. 31-34

Edward S. Said (1935-2003) was a man of letters in the best sense of the word exhibiting a wide ranging intellect, literate, incisive, passionate, respectful in his writing, and provocative. He was an intellectual in a tradition where one is actively engaged in the current political and social issues. For Said, the political was not an abstraction but had specific and personal consequences. Unfortunately, many know him only through his political activity rather than having read him. A prolific writer he stressed the importance of the Other. The Other, in his case the Arab world, is misunderstood by the European. He was an Arab-Christian, born in Jerusalem but raised in Cairo, and attended colonial schools. He also was an American citizen by virtual of his father being one. This background seemed to make him feel "out of place" the title of his memoirs written after being diagnosed with leukemia.

This slim book, 84 pages including notes, of which 42 is Said's lecture, contains an introduction by Christopher Bollas and a discussion by Jacqueline Rose. The lecture was sponsored by the Freud Centre because the Freud Institute in Vienna reneged on an invitation. The Freud Institute claimed the political climate in Austria, with the rise to political power of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party, was not a suitable time. It is to the Freud Centre's credit, itself a locus of controversy, to have righted a wrong.

A potential reader will be misled if the briefness of the lecture is taken for lack of depth. It is for good reason that Nadine Gordimer has called Said " of the truly important intellects in our century" and that Rose refers to Said's "unquestionable brilliance”. His capacity to write is exceptional. His writings have a directness, a clarity about where he stands and what he means, and a challenge to viewpoints differing from his own. His ability to weave various strains, literary, cultural, and political into a whole may reflect his musical background so that ultimately there is a melody. In discussing Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Said states, " virtue of its uncompromising European vision, is precisely what gives it its antinomian force, the intensity and power wrapped inside its sentences, which demand an equal and opposite response to meet them head on in a confirmation, a refutation, or an elaboration of what they present." (Said, p. 26). So too does his lecture.

This lecture is not an exegesis of Freud's Moses and Monotheism but rather, as Rose indicates, a political parable. It is about the politics of literary representation. Read this way, the reader is exposed to a perspectivist viewpoint in which the "facts" presented are secondary to the "truth" that is being expressed. The "truth" may also express political goals. Said notes Freud's acknowledgment that he is being arbitrary in the selection of his data and he too acknowledges being somewhat arbitrary. Both Freud and Said gather their facts to support their thesis. Essentially what we have are two late works, both of which cover many themes, sometimes in a fragmentary way, as is inherent in a late work. Both sensed or knew that the work may be a final statement about an important theme in their lives. For Freud it is mainly the deconstruction of a leader and a challenge to his own group's belief or myth, which is in keeping with his lifelong views on religion and his relationship to his heritage. He notes that he is going against his group's national interest. For Said, it is the European/non-European issue, a question of identity and exile, and its manifestation in the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Bollas notes Said's use of contrapuntal, which is an interesting concept and important in understanding Said's style of writing. Some writers, Freud among them, leave works that travel "...across temporal, cultural, and ideological boundaries..." (Said p. 24), which emerge later in unforeseen ways in new forms. Said's new form is to take Freud's statements that Moses was an Egyptian and monotheism the creation of Akhenaton as a starting point for another melody, a counterpoint.

His new form is to ask how Freud's statement about Moses and monotheism impacts upon a view of monotheism, Jewish identity, and the Palestine-Israel issue. Said accepts Freud's assumptions about Moses being an Egyptian and monotheism an Egyptian creation. He thinks Yerushalmi (1991), who has emphasized the Jewish historical claim to monotheism, jumps to conclusions when he claims that monotheism was historically Jewish if not genetically. He also thinks Yerushalmi misconstrues Freud's view that even if the Jewish people did not originate monotheism it is to their credit that they took hold of it and maintained it since according to Freud it did not take root in Egypt. Said discounts Yerushalmi's view as too narrow and states that Freud was probably aware that monotheism returned to Egypt with primitive Christianity which remains today in the Coptic Church and then returned through Islam. This reference to monotheism's return via primitive Christianity and Islam is a surprising way to counter specifically Yerushalmi and implicitly Freud. Said omits the long period of time between Mt. Sinai and Islam, which is at least six centuries after Christ, whose teachings are derived from a long period of Jewish monotheism.

Furthermore, are Said and Freud talking about the same monotheism? Freud in the second to last page makes an important distinction regarding monotheism. He states,

"After the Christian doctrine had burst the confines of Judaism, it absorbed constituents from many other sources, renounced many features of pure monotheism, and adopted in many particulars the rituals of other Mediterranean people" (Freud, p.175).

This pure monotheism may be reflected in Braunstein's (2004) analysis of Schoenberg's opera Moses and Aaron. The distinction Braunstein makes is between abstraction and images with the former being the essence of Moses. Theodor Reik once commented that the primary contribution of Judaism is God's invisibility, an abstraction like the superego. Interestingly, Bollas from a different position notes that the first exile we all experience may be from the maternal to the paternal order i.e., from image-sense to the symbolic order of language.

Literary representation, with its political implications, is most present in the question of Moses' identity. If Moses was an Egyptian then, according to Said, it produces a fissure in Jewish identity. lf Moses was not a Jew and monotheism was not a Jewish creation, then Jewish identity is pluralistic, i.e., the result of mixture with other people and not foundational. He contrasts this pluralistic identity with the foundational one of Israeli policy and legislation. Said rejects Israel's attempt to define a foundational identity that excludes other people who have lived "in that sliver of land." In fact he states that Israeli legislation "...contravenes, represses, and even cancels Freud's carefully maintained opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background" (Said, p. 44). What does he mean by this? He contrasts Israeli policy of exclusive immigration by Jews, the right of return, with the inability of former Palestinian residents to return. Essentially, he is saying that, by being a Jewish state, Israel ignores Freud's opening up of Jewishness to its non-Jewish background. Here we have the use of Freud's writing in an unforeseen way in its application to a national policy.

His interesting analysis of archeology from an Israeli and Arab perspective, duly noted by Rose, is an analysis of how nations, in this case Israel, use archeological studies to define an identity, claim land, and extend political goals. I think there is merit in Said's observation if not in his conclusion which Rose shares that the Arab archeology reflects more Freud's position in that it is less foundational. From my viewpoint both serve national narratives demonstrating their ancient presence in the land they both claim.

For me some of Said's most interesting points are his comments on the unhoused Jew. For centuries, the Jew has been unhoused but with the creation of Israel is housed. The Jew in literature has been a symbol of the outsider and of exile. Freud's unhoused quality allowed him both to stand apart from the culture and to deconstruct the Moses myth. Said indicates that for Freud and others, like Spinoza, the unhoused quality allows for an internationalist viewpoint, which has changed with the creation of Israel. For Said, the Jewish experience of exile and fissure in identity is relevant today to many people who have been dispersed from their homelands, including the Palestinians. Salman Rushdie superbly expresses this extended sense of exile in The Satanic Verses.

Said hopes for a return to Palestine since he broke with Arafat because of the Oslo agreement and the absence of a right of return for the Palestinians. In another essay (Said, 2002), he is aware that in most cases you can't go home again. Ironically, he cites the Jews and their return to Israel as an exception; and I believe he holds, in the same vein, for the possibility of a return for the Palestinians. The return he calls for, at the end of his lecture, is a bi-national state which would be an expression of a secular pluralistic identity living together which he believes is in keeping with Freud's views of identity and internationalism. Freud noted that he is going against national interest so it may be reasonable to assume that he would oppose any foundational identity that is, any communal identity that attempts to be limited to one and only one identity. However while Freud's views on Zionism, always ambivalent, shifted slightly favorably as a result of anti-Semitism in the thirties, as Said notes, who knows what his view would have been had he lived into the post WWII period?

Zionism always had a double meaning. One meaning is the nationalistic fervor in keeping with the rise of nationalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century for which Freud may well have been ambivalent. Secondly, a Jewish state would be a refuge for Jews who were being expelled and discriminated against. Freud and his immediate family were able to seek refuge in London after the Nazis annexed Austria because of the intervention of people in high places. Others were not able to do so. The right of return is, in part, a statement that there will always be a place of refuge for Jews. Had he lived into the post W.W.II days, Freud may have become less ambivalent about Zionism, not because he says Jews are a separate nation (he does not), but because it offered a place of refuge.

Said views the creation of Israel as an act of expiation by the European countries for the Holocaust, which he views as a particularly European phenomenon stemming from the virulent anti-Semitism it spawned. In effect, the Arab world is made to pay for the sins of the Europeans. Said is correct in noting that the Arab world in which Jews lived did not have this virulent anti-Semistism. However, he does not note that after the creation of Israel many non-European Jews who lived in Arab lands left them “voluntarily.” In addition he believes the European countries created Israel, a quasi-European state “ hold non-European indigenous peoples at bay for as long as possible” (p. 41-42).

Rose is not so sanguine as Said is about people living together for a couple of reasons. First, she believes Said underestimates the fixity of identities, which is increased, not lessened, by trauma. Secondly, Said underestimates the connection between sociality and violence. He also fails to address hate in group dynamics. Groups are bound, a band of brothers, in the killing of the father and in the hate of other groups. How the Middle East conflict plays out in that "sliver of land" may be an issue of power, something that Said only tangentially touches upon. Said's bi-national country is an ideal one of a pluralistic, secular society living in peace with one another. Nevertheless, to many Israelis it represents the end of a Jewish state.

There is one glaring example of a lack of clarity for a writer who is generally very clear. In discussing Freud's comments about the non-Jew, Said states, "Jews, he {Freud} says, have always attracted popular hatred, not of all which is based on reasons as good as the charge that they crucified Christ"(Said, p. 38). Does Freud say that? Not exactly, and not in those words. Said is referring to the accusation that Freud states Jews have heard, namely, "You killed our God." Freud states, "Not all accusations with which anti-Semitism pursues the descendants of the Jewish people are based on such good foundations" (Freud, p.115). But what are the foundations? ln the sentences leading up to this statement in the same paragraph and in the previous paragraph, Freud states that the murder of Moses is the important link between the forgotten deed of the primeval father and monotheism. Freud then says the guilt over murdering Moses may be the basis for a "wish-phantasy" for the Messiah. Christ becomes Moses's "substitute and successor" and his rebirth has some historical truth for he was the resurrected Moses "...and the returned primeval father of the primitive horde as well-only transfigured, and as a Son in the place of his Father." The accusation or charge " true, if rightly interpreted (italics mine). It says in reference to the history of religion: 'You won't admit (italics his) that you murdered God' (the archetype of God, the primeval father, and his reincarnations)." (Freud, p. 114-115.)

The accusation or charge that the Jews killed Christ is historically true only if he is the reincarnation of the primeval father and the resurrected Moses. The guilt the Jews won't admit to is the original killing of the primeval father and the murder of Moses. The accusation or charge rests on good foundations the way a neurotic with repressed guilt feels guilty when an accusation is made that does not have particular merit. While Said deals with literary representations, Freud is speaking of unconscious mental representations and repressed guilt over the killing of the primeval father and Moses. Said's statement while not totally inaccurate is not totally accurate. The context is critical. Whether Freud's speculations have any merit is another issue.

In concluding his lecture, Said notes that the wound to identity that Freud provides in Moses and Monotheism is the "...essence of the cosmopolitan" from which there is "no utopian reconciliation" (Said, p. 54). The unresolved sense of identity, which is inherent in Jewish identity by Moses being an Egyptian, is also existent in the non-European world. Other besieged identities can respond to this fissure in identity. Said, like Freud, does not pose palliatives but simply states we need to face it and live with it. As Rose notes, Freud may then be the model for coping with this basic trauma to identity. This is the image of modern man, which has been depicted by modernist novelists. It has been the essence of analytic work too.

When Said is writing about identity and exile and its psychological condition he speaks to the experience of analysts working with people of different cultural backgrounds. Said is cogently aware of the dangers of not listening to the Other, which as analysts we are hopefully attuned to as the definitive ingredient of our daily work. When he discusses literary ideas and how they reflect cultural differences and eras, he is extremely insightful. This book is a brilliant discussion of literary representations that are present in political thought and may serve as an introduction to Said. Reading Said is an immensely rich experience whether one agrees with him or not. In reading him, one is likely to do both. His erudition, writing skill, and his challenge to the reader is rewarding. As the Other to conventional Western thought he confronts you with the limits of your own thinking. One thing is absolutely certain, in reading him you won't be unmoved by what he writes. If you were, I think he would have been disappointed.


Braunstein, Nestor A. (2004). Two Works on Moses: Freud's and Schoenberg's. Paper delivered at Nomos Conference, Freud's Moses and the Traumatized Human Subject, October 17, 2004, Columbia University, New York City.
Freud, S. (1955). Moses and monotheism. NY: Vintage Books.
Said, Edward. S. (2002). "On lost causes," In Reflections on exile. Cambridge. MA. Harvard University Press.
Yerushalmi, Josef. (1991) Freud’s Moses: Judaism terminable and interminable. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reviewer Note

Harold B. Davis is currently a supervisor at the New York U. Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, faculty and supervisor at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, and in private practice in New York City. This year he is the past president of the International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education.


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