Psychoanalysis / The Maze of Moses

The publication in Hebrew of Freud's final work is an opportunity to look at the valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by the father of psychoanalysis to understand the origin of the Jews.

Moshe Ha'ish Vehadat Hamonoteistit by Sigmund Freud (Translated from the German by Ruth Ginsburg)Resling Publishers, 194 pages, NIS 89. (Moses and Monotheism, Vintage, 192 pages, $9.95 in paperback)

Moto Shel Sigmund Freud by Mark Edmundson (Translated from the English by Hanna Amit)Keter and Ivrit Publishers, 291 pages, NIS 89. (The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, Bloomsbury, 276 pages, $25.95)

Right after the Anschluss, a gang of Nazis arrived at Sigmund Freud's home in Vienna. His wife, Martha, offered the hooligans cash from her moneybox, while his daughter, Anna, realizing the sum would not satisfy them, went to the safe and took out all the money there was to be had in the house and gave it to them. Before the Nazis left, the doctor himself came walking slowly out of his room, Mark Edmundson tells us in "The Death of Sigmund Freud." Sick and old, he fixed the invaders with the same glare he used to fix upon his adversaries, as well as patients who challenged him. His authoritative pose stood him in good stead; the Nazi vermin panicked and departed, if only temporarily, taking the money with them, but without doing any further harm.

At the time, Freud was working on his scandalous book "Moses and Monotheism." Edmundson discusses these details at length, including the pleas from Jews that Freud refrain from publishing the work, which came out in several installments, appearing in full by 1939. Freud's Europe looks like a stage, off which one great Austrian is smuggled, and over which another Austrian achieves domination. Edmundson describes how on Saturday, June 4, 1938, Freud boarded the Orient Express, accompanied by Martha, Anna, Dr. Josephine Stross (his personal physician), the family's maid Paula Fichtl, and Lun, his chow chow dog, thus ending the long Viennese chapter of his life. Edmundson's book reads like a historical novel, but at its core lies the book that Freud wrote about Moses, which is also a kind of a novel - at least that's how Freud described it to Arnold Zweig.

For years Freud wrestled with the question of authority and of the leader; with the rise to power of the Nazis, he came back once again to the subjects of the masses and the Father. From a theoretical point of view, the development in "Moses and Monotheism" (or as the Hebrew translation is titled, "Moses the Man of Religion and the Monotheistic Religion") may not be very significant, when compared to, say, his much earlier "Totem and Taboo" (1913). But it was Freud's last book. He completed it in London, his place of exile, where he also died and was cremated. Nonetheless, he wrote most of the book during the years when he feared Austrian censorship. He was especially frightened of the Catholic Church, and also worried about describing what distinguished or united his own people, his own religion.

The book's first section, "Moses the Egyptian," is a kind of mythological account, in which Freud describes Moses as an Egyptian prince. The myth of the basket on the Nile is nice, but it appears in so many civilizations that Freud does not need it to bolster Moses' "ethnic" connection to the Jewish people. This is the point of Edward Said's famous intervention. What caught his eye was Freud's statement that the Mosaic religion is not European. For Said, this observation of Freud's was a welcome one. Freud "seems to have made a special effort," Said wrote in "Freud and the Non-European" (2003), "never to discount or play down the fact that Moses was non-European - especially since, in the terms of his argument, modern Judaism and Jews were mainly to be thought of as European, or at least belonging to Europe rather than Asia or Africa."

The reason for this, according to the Palestinian scholar, was Freud's refusal "to resolve identity into some of the nationalist or religious herds in which so many people want so desperately to run." Each communal identity, Said remarks, has "inherent limits that prevent it from being incorporated into one, and only one" identity.

The Christian 'model'

However, it is more important to focus on Freud's attempt to understand Jewish civilization against the background of the myth of the murder of its primeval patriarch, Moses. Why, he asks in "Moses and Monotheism," were the Jews "unable to participate in the progress which this confession to the murder of God [in Christianity] betokened (in spite of all its distortion) ... Through this they have, so to speak, shouldered a tragic guilt. They have been made to suffer severely for it."

But isn't the very search after the myth of deicide or the murder of the patriarch reminiscent of the Christian "model"? Isn't this an adoption of the Christian myth, which simultaneously reveals the Christian nature of the Oedipal complex and the weakness of the anthropology of religion, at the center of which there stands, in the best case, "the objective scholar" - which is to say a kind of secular, Western, or in other words, Christian, person?

In his seventh seminar, Jacques Lacan comments on Freud's Moses, saying "The history of religions consists essentially of establishing the common denominator of religiosity. We stake out the religious region within man within which we are required to distinguish religions as different ... as Borneo, Confucianism, Taoism, and the Christian religion. It's not without its difficulties, although, when one sets out to produce typologies, there's no reason why one shouldn't end up with something. And this time, one ends up with a classification of the imaginary, which is in opposition to that which characterizes the origin of monotheism, and which is integrated into the primordial commandments insofar as they are the laws of speech: 'Thou shall not make a carved image of me,' and so as to avoid that risk altogether, 'Thou shalt not make any image at all.'" ("The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-60," translated by Dennis Porter).

The quote from Lacan is based on paraphrase. The biblical proscription is actually more severe, but it is followed by the significant prohibition, the one that bars speaking - in this case, of saying the name of God in vain.

Lacan wanders, in Freud's footsteps, into Moses' maze, facing the burning bush, when God refuses to identify himself with the help of any likeness at all. Here it is appropriate to describe the persistent negotiation between God and Moses, in order to see how Lacan understands the monotheistic bans on likenesses, on pleasure, on art: "Moses said to God, 'When I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your Fathers has sent me to you" and they ask me, "What is his name?" what shall I say to them?' And God said to Moses, 'I am what I am' and He said, 'Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: "I am sent me to you."'"(Exodus 3:14)

However much the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser cited this chapter for his own purposes, it was Lacan who used it, in the wake of Freud and the description that reconstructs "Totem and Taboo," to break through what seems to be the core of the biblical ethos of obliterating the physical representation of the deity: Here is the explanation of the ark of the covenant, of which there is no vestige. Lacan is gentle. Freud knows little about the Jewish religion. He is a Jew, this is correct, but like many educated Jews, he learns about Judaism via German Protestantism.

Lacan catches him red-handed. " ... It is, needless to say," he writes, "odd to find this strange Christo-centrism in Freud's writings. There must have been a reason for him to have slipped into it almost without realizing it." It is doubtful that the courageous Freud -- in agony from his cancer as he wrote, and afraid of the Church (what a small danger compared to the real one, as Edmundson observes ); hesitant to offend the Jews, as he relates in his lengthy correspondence with Zweig, sitting on Mt. Carmel and writing to his idol in Vienna -- was able to analyze the Jewish enigma.

"Moses and Monotheism" can also be read as an attempt to give meaning to the difference between the Jews and their European surroundings, as Edward Said did. But it can be read as a symptom of the predicament of the educated Jew, a product of European culture, who discovers that his "parents" are not really his parents, and who has to search for his true father. Few of them looked to Palestine to conduct this search for this "father" -- that is to say, the Zionist father. In any case, the desperate search of the Jew for his "genuine" origins, against the background of the years during which the book was written, in my eyes makes this the gist of this book.

Yitzhak Laor is a writer and poet.

Haaretz Books, October 2009