Sigmund Freud: Totem and Taboo. (10/23/2001)

In the subtitle of his attempt to capture the moment when civilization began, which is one way Freud's Totem and Taboo has been characterized, he makes it abundantly clear and obvious why people "trained" in psychoanalysis should never attempt to expand their territory to include the discipline of anthropology, which has enough problems of its own so as not to need any help from someone who is only dabbling, when he names it a work meant to establish Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Freud bases his position on the idea that primitive, that is, tribal, people created their inferior form of religion by means of projecting the content of their mostly inadequate minds outward into the real external world. He identifies the religion he means and the method by which it came into existence when he says that "[t]he projection of their own evil impulses into demons is only one portion of a system which constituted the Weltanschauung [world view] of primitive peoples, and which we shall come to know as 'animism'" (81). Well before anyone gets to this statement, Freud establishes exactly what he means by the "evil impulses" that savages project as religion into the world. He does this by describing the characteristics of the Australian aborigines, an account he summarizes from sources current at the time (1913), which may have been written by Sir James Frazer. Freud says that

"They do not build houses or permanent shelters; they do not cultivate the soil; they keep no domesticated animals except the dog; they are not even acquainted with the art of making pottery. They live entirely upon the flesh of all kinds of animals which they hunt, and upon roots which they dig. Kings and chiefs are unknown among them; communal affairs are decided by a council of elders. It is highly doubtful whether any religion, in the shape of the worship of higher beings, can be attributed to them. The tribes in the interior of the continent, who have to struggle against the hardest conditions of existence as a result of the scarcity of water, appear to be more primitive in all respects than those living near the coast." (4)

Freud, of course, fails to mention a few facts, as much because of a lack of European knowledge of aboriginal life as it might be to twist the reality of it to his own purposes, when he does not mention the tribal singers, those men and women in each community who are responsible for maintaining the four distinct aspects of their tribal culture. One person in each community, for instance, carries in his/her mind a song, learned from the predecessor in the line, that details every significant event in the 40,000-year history of the aboriginal people in the region of his/her ancestral home. These songs take weeks to recite and are performed at specially arranged ceremonial events at least once every year. It is fair to say that the Aborigines did not make pottery; instead, they made poetry. Europeans like Freud did not even have a coherent history that long when he wrote his denigration of their civilization.

It is not what Freud left out of his account, however, that is most troubling. In the sentence immediately following the paragraph quoted above, Freud turns to his favorite subject, sexuality, since he wants to establish the existence of the incest taboo in even this incredibly savage people. He goes on to make clear precisely what he means by the "evil impulses" primitive people project as religion when he says that "[w]e should certainly not expect that the sexual life of these poor, naked cannibals would be moral in our sense or that their sexual instincts would be subjected to any great degree of restriction." (4) He follows this absurd falsehood by assuring us that the Aborigines did observe the incest taboo; but, the point here is that he labels them "cannibals" when in the previous paragraph he states that they only ate the animals and roots they had hunted and gathered. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the Aborigines ever practiced any form of cannibalism. Freud is simply a liar, but in a noble cause, since it is impossible to find any "evil impulses" in his description of aboriginal life, unless living by the rule of tribal elders is somehow immoral, and so is forced, in order to satisfy the needs of Eurocentric desire, in order to preserve the myth of European superiority, to invent them as he goes along. The fact that he has gotten away with this egregious slander for nearly 100 years only testifies to how desperate Europeans must be to believe that only their forms of life and morality are truly valid.

Freud is not finished with his denigration of tribal people after turning hunters and gatherers into cannibals, however, since he goes on to apologize for attributing higher powers of reason to "modern savages" than the probably deserve when he compares their state of intellectual achievement to that of European children; that is,

"I am under no illusion that in putting forward these attempted explanations [for 'primitive' beliefs and practices] I am laying myself open to the charge of endowing modern savages with a subtlety in their mental activities which exceeds all probability. It seems to me quite possible, however, that the same may be true of our attitude towards the psychology of those races that have remained at the animistic level as is true of our attitude towards the mental life of children, which we adults no longer understand and whose fullness and delicacy of feeling we have in consequence so greatly underestimated." (123)

While Freud probably cannot be accused of originating the idea that "savages" are the same as children in their mental capacity, that honor belonging to this or that anthropologist who initiated the comparison at some earlier date, it is nevertheless true that his saying so in this context made the idea seem more credible than it actually is and most certainly projected that characterization forward into the Eurocentric discourse that discovered in Freudian authority, where he is seen as a preeminent expert in things psychological, a more than willing accomplice and proponent of restrictive governmental and societal policies meant to continue the destruction of native culture that began in 1492 and continues unabated to this day. Children, after all, need the protective governance of their parents lest they fall victim to impulses that disrupt the lives of the adults who do not understand them. With a long-standing policy of incarcerating native Americans in concentration camps, it never hurts to have a prominent psychologist on your side who is willing to testify that the detainees are at best children in need of strict supervisions and at worst dangerous neurotics who threaten the stability of the society that imprisons them. Freud has always filled that role perfectly.

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