Paul's new book connects anthropology and psychoanalysis

For some 30 years, anthropologist Robert Paul knew he was on to something; he just couldn't quite make the connection. With the publication of Moses and Civilization: The Meaning Behind Freud's Myth (Yale University Press, 1996), it seems he's finally figured it out.

What has intrigued Paul since his graduate student days at the University of Chicago in the 1960s has been the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and anthropological theory. In his new book, Paul, Candler professor of anthropology who teaches in the Institute of Liberal Arts, demonstrates how Sigmund Freud's major cultural books, Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, are psychoanalyses of the mythical narrative underlying Judeo-Christian civilization.

In the first chapter, Paul writes, "This book represents my effort to further the understanding of Western civilization begun by Freud in his cultural books." Paul shows, however, that the heart of Freud's theory of civilization as it now stands is misleading. Freud had said that "our civilization, and especially its moral and religious aspects (upon which other aspects may be said to depend), can be understood by using the analogy of a case of obsessional neurosis in an individual," wrote Paul. Freud believed that "the fervently, but irrationally held beliefs and practices of any religion take their meaning from the repressed collective memory of a founding historical traumatic event."

That event, which marked the end of our living in the state of nature (the primal horde) and gave rise to civilization, Freud asserts, is the murder of the primal father by his rebellious sons. Freud argues that civilization began when jealous sons who had killed and then eaten their father because they were denied access to his harem of women felt guilty and set their father up as a supernatural being. "The father became the totem, and incestuous relationships and killing became taboo," said Paul during an ILA lecture on Sept. 17.

While Paul dismisses Freud's analyses as historical fact, he redeems Freud's analysis by saying it is very accurate if applied to cultural myths. "To speak of a civilization as if it were a living organism with a developmental cycle that, in its present `adulthood' could exhibit the symptoms of a neurosis because of the repressed memory of a trauma experienced in its earlier `childhood'--this just won't fly." Yet Paul is still drawn to Freud's theory, demonstrating how Freud constructed it based on the Catholic Mass ceremony, which would have been the most prominent religious ritual of his time. "Since this is a story about something that is supposed to have happened in the past, we can then ask whether the story of the beginnings of Christianity is the fruition of an earlier deed, not an actual deed, but one that occurred earlier in the mythic narrative itself."

Paul looks for that earlier deed in the Hebrew Bible, specifically in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, which forms the heart of Jewish worship and provides the foundation for Christian tradition. "In short, the whole narrative of the Torah--the first and, in my view, the foundational segment of the entire Hebrew and Christian canon--taken in its entirety, is nothing other than the story of the primal crime," Paul wrote.

Throughout the book, which received the Heinz Hartmann Award from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, Paul looks at the numerous parallels between Freud's myth of the end of the primal horde and the Torah. His analysis suggests three divisions of the Torah: the old regime, the rebellion and the establishment of the new regime. He identifies Moses as the perpetrator of the primal deed--the rebellion against the pharaoh of Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. "The regime of the primal horde corresponds to the era of Israelite bondage in Egypt under Pharaoh, while the aftermath of the rebellion is the establishment of a new social, moral and religious order: that is, the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai."

"These ideas about Freud's analysis of our culture had bounced around in my head for several years," said Paul. "In the 1980s I taught a grad seminar on the topic. It was in that seminar that I figured out what this was all about," said Paul. "It dawned on me that Freud's myth of the `primal crime' represented something basic in Western Judeo-Christian civilization; that this myth was the key myth to the structure of our society. I decided then to write a short, crisp essay on my ideas and during the summers of '92 and '93 I wrote it down. And now it's a book.

"What Freud was saying is `What are these people doing on Sunday morning when they go to church? They are performing a ritual; what is the compulsion; what is the myth?'" said Paul. "Freud asserted that our culture portrays the dynamics of an obessional neurosis. In this book I show that our civilization, in which the Torah story is one of the great master narratives, values, requires and produces in its members a character type with the psychodynamics typical of the healthy end of the obsessive-compulsive scale--a personality type I call the `conscientious personality.'"

"The mythic narrative of Moses," wrote Paul, "thus plays a central role in the reproduction of a cultural system that has motivational force for the actors who comprise it, by arousing and organizing their own strongest desires and anxieties. At the same time we can understand how this myth achieves its forceful and even compulsory appeal, for it speaks to fundamental human conflicts, wishes and fears."

Paul describes his work as the supreme anthropological work in the sense that it is an attempt to brign himself and the objects of his study together.

--Jan Gleason

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