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Totem and Taboo (1913) stands as a characteristic example of Sigmund Freud's controversial genius. Written with his typical elegance of style, persuasive reasoning, and ingenuity of rhetoric, the book is at once a work of art and a pioneering effort to extend the reach of psychology into the broader realm of social science. Totem and Taboo remains a founding text for the field of psychoanalytic anthropology.
About the Author
Totem and Taboo, published in 1913, was Sigmund Freud’s first major effort to apply his psychoanalytic methods to the study of society and culture—to venture, that is, into the realms of sociology and anthropology. His interest in such matters was, however, of long standing, expressed as early as 1900 in some of his letters to friends and colleagues, and in brief notations in some early publications. But it was only in 1911 that he began to turn his full attention to this task, undertaking a series of essays that he assembled into its final form as a contribution to the literature of the social sciences which, after almost a century, continues to reverberate today.
Freud was born in 1856 in Freiburg, a small city in Moravia, the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and moved with his parents to Vienna when he was three and a half years old. There he lived, obtained his classical Gymnasium education, graduated from medical school, raised his family and, after a period of laboratory research in neuro-anatomy, undertook the study and treatment of patients with neurological and emotional disorders. It was in that setting that, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, he began to develop the theory and technique of psychoanalysis, publishing, among other things, such major works as The Interpretation of Dreams, Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, as well as a number of extended clinical case studies that served to illustrate his ideas. Initially he worked alone and with little recognition, but gradually he gathered a group of colleagues and students as his writings, always controversial, gained increasing attention, acclaim, and criticism. A master of German prose style, he was awarded the Goethe Prize in 1930 by the City of Frankfurt for the literary quality of his voluminous writings on the workings of the human mind. Finally, after the German absorption of Austria in 1938, Freud, by then old and ill, was helped by some of his students and followers to move to London to escape the Nazis’ anti-Semitic persecution. The next year, after completing his final book “Moses and Monotheism,” he died, widely celebrated as the founder of what had by then become the international psychoanalytic movement.
The anthropologic literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which Freud immersed himself was heavily influenced by Darwinian evolutionary concepts, transferred from the biological to the cultural sphere. Freud, himself a dedicated Darwinian, absorbed these views, which included not only such notions as universal psychic unity and the so-called “biogenetic law” (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”; i.e., individual development echoes the development of the species), but also the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. These concepts, which he never relinquished, came to be central to his thinking and proved to provide the nucleus for the controversies that have followed over the decades since the appearance of Totem and Taboo.
In his first chapter, Freud, relying largely on his readings about Australian aborigines, introduces the concept of totemism. The totem he defines as “an animal. . .and more rarely a plant or a natural phenomenon. . .which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan. . .it is the common ancestor of the clan and at the same time its guardian spirit.” At the same time it is said to be surrounded by elaborate patterns of avoidance. Freud contends that these avoidances are motivated primarily by the need to avert the possibility of incest; indeed, the chapter’s title is “The Horror of Incest,” a fear that he maintained to be universal. Intense defensive and ritualized prohibitions against incest are to be found not only in “primitives,” but also in the neurotics of civilized society, and their ubiquity shows that there must be a powerful, pan-human though unconscious wish in that direction, derived from early childhood relations with parents. Like Darwin, Freud concluded that only so profoundly rooted an impulse could account for so intense and universal an aversion.
“Taboo,” Freud says, “means on the one hand ‘sacred’ ‘consecrated’ and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’.” He then goes on to analogize the restrictions and avoidances of taboo to those he has observed in patients with obsessional neuroses. He proposes that in both instances the basic psychological issue is ambivalence—that is, the simultaneous existence of feelings of love and hatred directed to the same person. In both the restrictions imposed by, say, the taboo against touching the chief of the tribe and the neurotic’s compulsive ritual the aim is to protect an important and beloved figure against an unconscious hostile, even murderous wish. Both the “primitive” and the neurotic believe in what Freud’s obsessional patient “The Rat-Man” called “omnipotence of thought”—that a thought or wish is equivalent to an action and will be magically fulfilled. To Freud, this sort of thinking constituted the foundation for religious belief, which he saw as a somewhat evolved cultural variant of the infantile belief in magic that underlies the institution of taboo.
Freud firmly linked totemism to exogamy—the categorical prohibition in “primitive” societies against sexual relations or marriage with a member of the totemic clan. This sanction served him as the bridge to his clinical—and self-analytic—discovery of what he considered the universal mental construction, the Oedipus complex; that is, the young child’s sexual longing for the parent of the opposite sex and rivalry with, and fear of, the same-sex parent. It was, he concluded, the failure to resolve this complex that leads to neurosis and to the defensive avoidances exemplified in “primitive” man by totemism, exogamy, and taboo.
Freud, again following Darwin, proposed that these patterns in contemporary cultures represented the perpetuation, through Lamarckian inheritance, of a prehistoric event in which a “primal horde”—a band of brothers—rose up against a tyrannical father, killed him, seized the women he had previously monopolized, and devoured his body in a cannibalistic feast. Then, consumed with guilt, they perpetuated him in memory as a totem figure and instituted the patterns of prohibition and avoidance that constituted the practices of taboo. Thus, he said, the crimes of Oedipus—murdering his father and marrying his mother—were illustrative of this prehistoric event and formed what he called the “nuclear complex” of the neurosis. Neurotics, of course, carry out these events in thought and fantasy; “primitives” tend to execute them in action. Thus, he concluded, “In the beginning was the Deed.”
It is important to bear in mind the political context in which Freud advanced these ideas. When in l911 he began working systematically on broadening psychoanalysis to a social psychology, he was in close collaboration (and, some suggest, rivalry) with his then-favorite disciple, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung who was deeply interested in magic, primitive thought, and spirituality. By 1913, however, Jung had defected, renouncing Freud’s sexual theories and, specifically, the primacy and universality of the Oedipus complex. Thus one of Freud’s motives in publishing Totem and Taboo was a polemical one—to assert in a definitive way what he regarded as the fundamental psychoanalytic principles that Jung had come to challenge.
Totem and Taboo attracted little critical attention for several years, perhaps because World War I tended to preempt attention, perhaps because it was not translated into English until 1918. By 1920, however, it was greeted by a storm of critical response and controversy that has continued to this day. Freud was, of course, not an anthropologist, and by the 1920s the literature he used as the basis for his arguments was considered by those in that profession to be hopelessly out of date at best and scientifically defective at worst. He was chided by his anthropological critics for his reliance on secondary sources, his belief in cultural evolution and of psychic universality, and for his use of analogical thinking as between neurosis and “primitive” mentality. Most of all, however, he was taken to task for his insistence on the “primal horde” theory, a wholly speculative and, to his critics, implausible event for which there was no evidence and, worse, which relied on the now-discredited notion of Lamarckian inheritance to account for its persistent influence. There was, besides, widespread challenge to the idea of the universality of the Oedipus complex, exemplified by the work of the British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who claimed to show, on the basis of his work in the Trobriand Islands, that the pattern Freud described was purely a function of the paternalistic European family and did not exist in the matrilineal culture he had studied.
With the passage of time, however, criticism began to soften. As Wallace (1983) points out in his valuable and comprehensive survey, the eminent American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who in 1920 had vilified the book, by 1939 had become “conscience stricken.” Kroeber himself had undergone a Freudian analysis, had accepted the universality of the incest taboo, and had concluded that, after all, with certain modifications Totem and Taboo might, as Wallace puts it, “be serviceable to ethnology.” A number of commentators acknowledged that Freud’s emphasis on the importance of childhood experience and his concepts of repression, sublimation, and reaction-formation were of heuristic value. Even the question of the Oedipus complex came to be reconsidered; Melford Spiro (1982), in his critical assessment of Malinowski’s work, concludes, “Is the Oedipus complex universal? How could it possibly not be?” White, a neo-evolutionist, even came close in 1959 to endorsing Freud’s “primal horde” theory (minus, of course, the notion of Lamarckian inheritance).
In the world of psychoanalysis, Totem and Taboo was initially received with the enthusiasm that greeted most of Freud’s publications. Analytically trained anthropologists sought, with mixed success, to validate his propositions or at least to subject them to empirical testing in the field. Gradually, however, many analysts came to share some of the critiques that had been leveled at the work, especially at Freud’s Lamarckianism and his uncritical acceptance of Darwin’s “primal horde” theory of the origin of social organization. Recently, however, Grossman (1998) has proposed that, whatever the merits and demerits of his ethnology, Totem and Taboo has value as “a model of Freud’s ‘psychoanalytic mode of thought”; “an example of Freud’s application of psychoanalytic thinking that is much like the thinking employed in understanding clinical material. In both cases, his goal was the reconstruction of early mental life.”
Today, in the early years of a new century, Totem and Taboo stands as a characteristic example of Freud’s controversial genius. Written with his typical elegance of style, persuasive reasoning, and ingenuity of rhetoric, the book is at once a work of art and a pioneering effort to extend the reach of psychology into the broader realm of social science. Despite the limitations and misconstructions pointed out by his critics, the book remains a founding text for the field of psychoanalytic anthropology, and certain of his most strongly challenged propositions (even the “phylogenetic fantasy” of the “primal horde”) have taken on new life and are being actively reevaluated by contemporary scholars. Both psychoanalysis and anthropology have evolved in many directions in the decades since Freud undertook his work on Totem and Taboo, but his ideas continue to serve as stimuli for their continuing growth and development.
Aaron H. Esman, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and Professor Emeritus at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
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