THE FORCES OF MONOTHEISM CONFRONTING THE NEED TO BELIEVE
Brief Historical Overview
When approaching the immense continent of religious experience from a psychoanalytical point of view, my thoughts are directed to Sigmund Freud, to his genius which, from Totem and Taboo (1912) and Moses and Monotheism (1930) – to only cite these two – opened up a new way of thinking religious experience. By thinking about it, I mean: by living through it. Here, I would like to stress the paternal function of Moses. Freud explored this fundamental axis of monotheism while attentively studying neurosis and psychosis, relying heavily on its tragic dramatization by Sophocles, and the anthropology of the late 19th and early 20th century. He followed this line of thought to the discovery of how the Oedipus complex and the consequences of the incest taboo function to bring about the emergence of the capacity for psychic representation, giving access to language and to the development of thought as well as to the cathexis of our fantasies in diverse religious constructions.
By allowing us to think that Homo Sapiens is a Homo Religiosis, but that this construction is analyzable—constructible, deconstructible, and in no way a fatal destiny—psychoanalysis radically innovates our conception of the religious phenomenon. Neither a justification of faith, nor a mechanical atheism from which contemporary thought and political life have deeply suffered, Freud’s thought opens a new approach to the phenomenon of religion. But, do we truly dare pursue it with the audacity and prudence that globalization currently imposes upon us? For all that, have we gone beyond Nietzsche’s ambition, as expressed in The Antichrist, “to place a great question mark regarding the greatest seriousness”? Some of our psychoanalytical models or hypotheses are, perhaps, anthropological truths. However, I only personally experience them as work hypotheses, and therefore as question marks—and this is how I ask you to hear what is to follow.
An essential step in the post-Freudian approach of religion was taken by the structuralist inspired work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan. Observing the universality of the incest taboo, Lacan devised his conception of the “symbolic” as the realm of the Law, which regulates desire in the Oedipal complex. This complex is understood as deriving from a primary or symbolic interdiction against incest, unrelated to any biological factors necessitating such a taboo. “Transcending”, in a sense, human lineage, the natural procreation of the species, the “symbolic” coincides with the incest taboo, and would be the substratum or at least the condition, a condition, of the “divine”. Moreover, the “symbolic” has come to be defined as encoded by linguistic structures themselves (“God is language,” and “God is the Unconscious”, or even, “God is unconscious”).
A third post-structuralist and feminist-inspired movement examines the role of the “second sex” in the attempt to deconstruct the monotheist, paternal onto-theology. Here, we should highlight and discuss what this feminist movement has established by examining the work of students and researchers in divinity schools and colleagues in gender studies, notably in American universities. And because the maternal vocation is a key figure of the sacred, on the border of biology and meaning, and because secularization is the only civilization which lacks a discourse on motherhood, it is up to modern psychoanalysis to further current research on the early mother-child bond, the understanding of which is key to ensuring the survival of our species.
What exactly is the Copernican discovery of psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis discovered that “there is the Other”; the other that makes me speak – that I invest in and from whom I separate – by love – and – hate. Traces of these immemorial experiences that are inscribed in me and that I do not control, traces of “love-hate,” a strangeness—the otherness—in me alters and transcends me, and that is what we call the unconscious. It invites me to consider each person in his/her irreducible alterity: “every I is an Other.”
Having given this sweeping overview of the interface between psychoanalysis and religion, and in regard to the immense continent we are opening up, I’ll address six themes:
1. A psychoanalytic approach to believing and knowing.
2. The Bible: taboo versus sacrifice or how to construct the subject in man.
3. The beaten son and/or father of Christianity: from love to death, until sublimation.
4. Islam or how to understand the problem of murder.
5. Secularization and cultural diversity: ruptures and questioning.
6. The Threads of Freedom.
1) A psychoanalytic approach to believing and knowing
Let us take psalm 116:10: "He' emanti ki adaber..." "My trust does not fail even when I say, 'I am completely wretched. In my terror I said, 'No human being can be relied on.'" Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians 4:13, said echoing Psalm 116, "Epistevsa dio elalisa" (Greek translation), "Credidi, propter locutus sum" (in Latin), "I believed and therefore I have spoken", in English.
Because, a few lines before this statement, the psalmist evokes God's merciful ear ("I love the Lord because he hath heard my voice and my supplications…"), the loving Other, and, by collecting the many interpretations of the Hebrew word "ki" ("and", "because", "despite").
I understand the verse as follows: "Because You speak to me and listen to me, I believe and I speak, despite the unnamable."
The context of the psalm is more explicit than the Gospel: it associates faith ("emuna" in which we hear the root "amen," faith or belief) with speach acts which have specific, indifferent and, even, deceptive meanings. Faith holds the key to the act of speech itself be it that of complaint ("I'm unhappy," "people lie to me," etc.). Because I believe, I speak; I wouldn't speak if I didn't believe; to believe what I say and to persist in saying it grows out of the capacity to believe in the Other and not from the inevitably disappointing existential experience.But what is this "belief?"
The Latin credo comes from the Sanskrit "kredh/sraddhà-" which denotes an act of "confidence" in a god, involving restitution in the form of a divine favor accorded to the faithful; it is from this root that the financial term "credit" was derived; I set down a good and await my pay.
The psychoanalytical experience of the child and the adult attests to two crucial moments of development where the infans projects himself onto an outsider with whom he identifies.
On the one hand, there is the "oceanic feeling" of losing oneself in the maternal envelope, but also of infinitely likening oneself to the carrier wave of her protection: isn't this what the believer feels in the grace of his/her communion with the Divine, and that Romain Rolland asked Freud to interpret?
On the other hand, and closer to my questioning of the paternal function in the religious link, let us recall what Freud calls a "primary identification". This primary identification with the father of individual prehistory, dawn of the symbolic outsider who replaces the fascination and the horror of the dual interdependence of the mother-and-child, this confident recognition offered by the father-who-loves-the-mother and is loved by her and that I, in turn, devote to him, this psychic dynamic changes my stammering—into linguistic signs, whose value it determines.
Freud suggests, in substance, that words are signs of objects, but mostly signs of my jubilations and my fears, of my early years of life, spoken words transform my angst into "a believing expectation": Gläubige Erwartung, wrote Freud. Loving paternal listening gives meaning to what would otherwise be an inexpressible trauma, a nameless excess of pleasure and pain. But it is not I who construct this primary identification, nor is it the loving father who imposes it on me. The primary identification is "direct and immediate," like lightning or a hallucination. It is through the father-loving mother's sensitivity and discourse – a mother to whom I still belong and remain inseparable – that this "unification" of me-in-another-who-is-an-outsider imprints itself in me and structures me.
Before Laius (the Oedipal father), the imaginary father, by recognizing me and loving me through the mother lets me know that I am not her but other, and makes me believe that I can "believe" in a third role beyond my dependence on the maternal holding. Freud uses the word (Besetzung) "cathexis". To believe and/or to cathect, not in him as the "object" of need or desire, but in his representation of me and in his words – in the representation that I make of him and in my words. "I believed and therefore I spoke."
On this foundation alone, my need to believe, thus satisfied and offering me optimal conditions for language acquisition, can be accompanied by another capacity that is both corrosive and liberating: the desire to know. Carried by this faith that lets me hear a loving/loved outsider, I burst into questions.
Who hasn't witnessed the pleasurable trance of a child asking questions? Still straddling the border between the flesh of the world and the kingdom of language, the child knows with an hallucinatory knowledge that all identity – object, person, himself, the adult's response – is a constructible-deconstructible chimera. Lacan thought that the motto for psychoanalysis should be "Scilicet": "you can know." He forgot to mention that "you can know" if and only if you believe you know. From knowing to believing, and vice-versa, such is the eternal turnstile of speakbeing (parlêtre).
The Ego, writes Freud in The Ego and the Id, is made up of verbal traces and perceptions: this co-presence of perception and verbalization establishes itself henceforth as a "region", a "district" at the border between the Id and the consciential Superego and, by this very fact, as the object par excellence of the cure. Psychoanalysis' experience of this frontier, neither purely interior nor simply exterior, is meant to transform inexpressible mnesic traces of the "thing alone" (das Ding), of more or less traumatic excitation, into perception/verbalization on the condition that transference – which is ultimately Oedipal – occurs.
Freud, who was the least religious man of his century did not hesitate to postulate, by commenting on the destiny of paternity, "a high design for humans": "Das höhere Wesen in Menschen". Far from betraying some idealistic regression, this theorization indicates logics of an immanentization of transcendence, which the founder of psychoanalysis discovered by and in the process of transference within the "speaking cure" he invented.
The analysis makes new ties—cathexes—possible. I will say that the tie—cathexis—the cure enables the analysand to establish is none other than the tie of the investment—cathexis—of the symbolization process itself. For the "object", whichever it may be (sexual partner or friend, professional role, symbolic idea, etc.), and however optimal it may seem, cannot exist in the long run unless the speaking-analysand subject is capable of infinitely constructing-deconstructing its meaning: from the need to believe to the desire to know, and vice versa.
And I insist firmly on this fact: it is this displacement of the speaking subject with respect to itself, this infinitesimal revolution, constitutive of our practice, that disturbs the world. My fear is that psychoanalysts are not clever enough in the art of selling, or of clarifying, this exceptional singularity which consists in "speaking in psychoanalysis": I think I believe that I can know (Je pense que je peux savoir). And yet this experience seems to me to be the only one that can save us - not from a "culture" that psychoanalysis has revealed to be dominated by the death instinct - but by diverting this death drive – deferring it, rerouting it, knowing its causes. The experience is infinite and questions the very conditions of speaking, including the need to believe.
2) The Bible: Interdiction Versus Sacrifice, or How to Construct the Subject in Man.
If it is true that biblical election constructed the subject in man, as suggested by Cardinal Lustiger, a psychoanalytical reading of the Bible will find therein a veritable “strategy of identity.” The distinction pure/impure, tôhar/tâmê, appears in the biblical episode of the holocaust that Noah offers to God after the deluge. The opposition, though it is not absolute, inscribes itself in the fundamental concern of the biblical text to separate, to constitute strict identities without any mixing. The theological corpus is based on the gap between man and God. Yet this fundamental difference, in fact, subsumes others: life and death, vegetal and animal, flesh and blood, healthy and sick, alterity and incest.
Biblical impurity is straight off linked to the religious cult because the impure is excluded from the Temple, it concerns things (food, menstrual blood, leprosy, gonorrhea etc.) not immediately related to the sacred place. It is, therefore, secondary, by metaphor, that impurity concerns the temple, just as, consequently, that which is excluded from it, in particular idolatry. The space and the law of One do not exist without a series of separations: oral, corporal or even more generally material and, in the last instance, relative to the fusion with the mother. The pure/impure scheme bears witness to Judaism’s battle against paganism and its maternal cultures, a struggle essential to its constitution. In our personal lives, this scheme points back to the force of the struggle that each of us must lead to separate from the mother and become a speaking subject and/or a subject of the law.
By its emphasis on taboo, beginning with dietary interdictions, the Bible protects itself from sacrificial intervention or at least subordinates sacrifice to taboo. Biblical abomination would then be an attempt to halt murder. By upholding abomination, Judaism distinguishes itself from sacrificial religions. With biblical abomination, does religion not clearly aim to surpass itself?
Patiently, meticulously, obsessive defenses—that Freud underlines in Jewish religious rituals—against the desire to kill transform the death drive into an ideal self, the taboo into ethics. What initially appeared to us as a foundational opposition between man and God (and the following sequence of separation: vegetal/animal, flesh/blood) consequent to the initial contract “Thou shall not kill” becomes an entire system of logical oppositions. Different from the holocaust, this system of abomination presupposes it, and guarantees ethical efficiency. Semantically dominated, at least initially, by the life/death dichotomy, it eventually becomes a code of differences and similarities in relation to the Holocaust, and finally replaces it.
Contrary to certain structuralist psychoanalytical schools who see the symbolic Law as an absolute, the prophetic insistence on abomination as a permanent theme in the very “election”, signals that the strategy of identity is never gained once and for all. And that if the symbolic paternal order in which the identity of the speaking being is constituted is certainly absolute and universal, but it is nevertheless singularly contingent, and must ceaselessly be won over by he who is elected by it.
Our tendency is to hastily reduce Freud to Future of an Illusion (1927), and we’re not exactly wrong to do so (for the founder of psychoanalysis is constantly targeting the abuses of religious obscurantism when it stirs up conflicts around identity). But we forget that not only is illusion indispensible to psychic life (as attested to by the role of fantasy in the psychoanalytical process), it even constitutes it (let’s think of its “transitional” role, according to Winnicott). We also forget the extent to which imaginary constructions (myths, fables, narratives, religious stories, rites and all the arts) constitute for Freud the “precursors” in his quest for logics intrinsic to the life of the “psychic apparatus.”
The logic of biblical abomination and its psychoanalytical elucidation seem to me to constitute a radical means of sounding out the emergence of the subject in man, on condition that it puts into action, into place and into metaphor-metonymy the series of separations that articulates singular identity and/or symbolic election, such as it operates by the agency of the Other as Creator. The existence of the state of Israel is, therefore and in this perspective, more than a political or metaphysical necessity: it is an anthropological necessity. If it incites all others in the globalized world to think from the point of view of the Other.
3) The Beaten Son/Father of Christianity: From Love to Death to Sublimation.
Although paternal connotations of the divine Creator in the Bible abound, it is Christianity that actively and perseveringly exploits the paternal axis of the symbolic order, and it does so specifically through the complex relationship between Jesus – the Man-God Son of God and God the Father Himself. Without claiming to offer an exhaustive overview of this complex topology, I would like to propose a possible interpretation alongside a rereading of Totem and Taboo (1912) and “A Child is Beaten” (1919) by Freud, yet also informed by my clinical observation of the “desire for the father”, of sado-masochism and of its sublimation.
Remember that for Freud the murder of the father is a foundational act, a historical reality in human civilization. In a similar way, for Christians, Christ is a historical character and the murder they commemorate is a real one. I will not discuss these historical events and their supposed reality. I am only interested in the psychic reality, which generates fantasies in the subject who believes in such events, whether or not they actually occurred.
What would happen if Jesus were not only a child or a beaten brother, but a beaten father – beaten to death? By combining the son and the father, this scenario has the advantage of appeasing both the incestuous guilt that weighs on the desire for the Other (Sovereign Father) and of encouraging virile identification (even in the case of girls and women) with this tortured man: but only under the cover of masochism promoted, even recommended by this double movement.
The path is thus paved in the unconscious for the Oedipal father, who is usually the agent of the Law and Prohibition, to be now able to fuse with the subject of the guilty amorous passion that “I” am, as a girl – or a boy – loved by this same father. The superman father is humanized, even feminized by the suffering he undergoes; and because of this he is at once my ideal love object and my double, an ego-ideal. A complicit “us” is formed by and in the father’s passion. From here on we shall share love, guilt and punishment together.
It follows that, for the unconscious, these father/son/daughter reunions suspend the incest taboo in and by the suffering of the two punished lovers, in such a way that this suffering will necessarily be experienced as a marriage. The suffering of the father beaten to death – sexualized under the “whip of faith,” this love without pity (to paraphrase Baudelaire: “sous le fouet du plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci”) is the paradise of masochism, but also its only way out: sublimation.
By placing the fantasy of the father beaten to death at the summit of the evangelical narrative, so that it calls out for our identification, Christianity does not content itself with reinforcing prohibition of desires; paradoxically it displaces them, it recognizes them, appeases them, and paves the way to work through them, to sublimate them.
However, being beaten as this son-father is beaten, the subject’s unconscious releases his desires from guilt’s hold, and enables them to take form in what must be called sovereign, divine suffering. This is no longer the suffering of guilt which is the suffering resulting from transgression of Law, but rather suffering as the sole way leading to the union with this ideal that is the Father. A new kind of suffering: Christic or Christian which is not the flip side of the Law but a suspension of Law and guilt to the benefit of jouissance in idealized suffering. It opens a place for a jouissance in calling out, in longing, in the essential failure of satisfying the desire for the father: the suffering-jouissance in the ambivalence of the longing for the father, of the reorientation of desire towards the father (remember the Latin “versus” from which the French vers le père and hence père-vers). I do not say that the father beaten to death makes suffering commonplace or banal, nor that he authorizes incest but, by the glory and grace of our suffering-together, of our com-passion, he adjusts and justifies suffering.
Moreover, the adoration of the beaten father leads to another otherwise fundamental consequence: with and beyond the surreptitiously accepted incestuous link with the father, it is symbolic activity itself which I am encouraged to sexualize through paternal passion. Why?
The activity of representing-speaking-thinking, attributed to the father in patrilineal societies and which connects me to him, now becomes the privileged realm of sadomasochistic pleasure, the “kingdom” indeed, where suffering opens out, justifies and appeases itself. Along with Freud, we call sublimation this displacement of pleasure starting with the body and sexual organs and culminating in representation. Perversion and sublimation are the flip sides of this flexibility, of this fabulous suspension of the incest taboo induced by the beaten-to-death father. Through this fantasy, Christianity maintains the inaccessible ideal, on the one hand, and on the other, it also resexualizes the ideal father-son, whose happy suffering links me to his passion. I identify with Him (the Son-Father) beaten to death. By the Eucharist, first, but also by the intense activity of aesthetic representation.
4) Islam, or How to Reflect upon the Problem of Murder.
What is the relationship between the divine and the paternal function in Islam? Numerous specialists point to the “resemblances” between Allah and Aristotle’s God, “that final unmoved mover, at the periphery of the universe” (Phys. VIII, 10), who would perhaps even be a cause of the world, distanced from the world. This god, according to them, would be the “source” of Islamic radicalism, pushing believers to the point of mechanical obedience and terror!
The pivotal figure of this paternity at once juridical and loving is none other than the biblical Abraham who spares Isaac: for his obedience to the divine commandment moves God Himself to the point of making him suspend, not only the sacrificial judgment of the son, but also the passion between men, the “Oedipal” desire (Freud would say) to death. This is the biblical solution to the Abraham/Isaac episode, according to Freud. In Islam, this fundamental event presents itself differently. In Moses and Monotheism Freud points out that in Islam there would be a “recuperation (Wiedergewinnung) of the sole and great original Father,” (Urvater) and that it would “lack the development that produced, in the case of Judaism, the murder perpetrated against the founder of the religion”—a murder which Christianity, on the contrary, would be on the point of admitting.
Let us add to this the fact that in Islam uncertainty persists around the identity of the son to be sacrificed or spared: is he the illegitimate Ishmael of Agar or Sarah’s legitimate Isaac? Furthermore: how do we interpret the fact that in the Koran Abraham dreams of the sacrifice (rather than receiving the injunction from God Himself): is this dream an avowal of an unconscious desire to possess the son, in all senses of the term, to take pleasure in him and to abolish him? Or is it a veritable avoidance of immolation and murder (“Only a dream”)?
These “details” structure the subject of the three monotheist religions differently, both in its relationship to the Law and to the bonds of desire between men and women, and in the sadomasochistic pleasure experienced in the murder of the other, by the killing of the child in oneself, and even by one’s own death.
For Freud, Islam remains foreign to the development of this love-hate of and for the father experienced in Christianity. This is due less to a supposed loyalty to Aristotle than to a split from Jewish and Christian monotheisms, by distancing its conception of the Divine from all ideas of paternity as well as from numerous crucial points of the Bible and the Gospels which relate to the loving bond between the Creator and His creations and to the autonomy of the believer’s mind. Thus, for example, the absence of original sin in Islam (guilty for having listened to Satan, Adam and Eve are chased out of paradise, but their posterity does not bear the burden of their fault) or the sacralization of the Koran, revealed to Mohammed alone and, therefore, the belief that the revelation was not in part received from the Jewish-and-Christian tradition, but deformed by them.
Where do we situate the major difference that makes difficult and even prevents a possible meeting between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? By identifying this difference with an aggravated “Aristotleism,” we fail to question the specific character that constitutes, to my mind, the Muslim’s relationship to divine authority – a tie likened to a juridical pact – which departs from the bond to a paternal Creator whose function is to elect (in Judaism), or to love (in Christianity). Of course, Sufism and notably Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), brought subtle developments to the “big sacrifice,” interpreted in the tradition as a sacrifice of the self, the “ nafs ” or psyche in the face of nothingness. It is nevertheless a concern that certain particularities of Islam which I have pointed out very schematically make improbable, even impossible, an Islamic interpretative theology or even a “discussion” between its Sunni and Shiite branches, and certainly any open dialog with the two other monotheisms.
There is all the more reason, therefore, not to give in to the terrorizing, even terrorists drifts latent and internal to Islamic obedience, but to try to emphasize the most open currents of thought, as well as anthropological and sociological, even psychoanalytical research devoted to Islam today, in order to open the dialogue.
For, although Islam seems today far from a possible interpretive return to its history and its resemblances-differences in relation to its monotheist predecessors, the current political and economic reasons that seem to explain this impossibility, only hide the structural difficulties that constitute it. For this reason, it invites those who read religion as an analyzable given – anthropologists, sociologists, psychoanalysts – with or without specialists of religion, to attempt approaches likely to create bridges beyond the differences anthropologically identified and interpreted.
Whatever it may be, the manner in which Islam has become stuck in the fundamentalist mire—be it for structural reasons beyond the socio-historical-political conflict—raises a more general question concerning homo religiosis itself within his very structure. Homo religiosis would only be able to transcend the love-hate that overwhelms him by stepping aside, by taking himself as the object of thought. By developing his theological concern, or better, by elaborating on the infinite interpretations of his need to believe, and the multiple variations of his needs to believe. Is this not what Freud accomplishes when he claims that it is possible to speak one’s love-hate for the other, infinitely? Would psychoanalysis be a variation of theology? It’s ultimate variation?
5) Secularization and Cultural Diversity: Ruptures and Questioning.
Borne out of a secular tradition, psychoanalysis today cannot shy away from examining not only the advantages and risks of the immense continent of religion but, equally, the reasons that drive various movements of contemporary thought to stigmatize secularization itself.
To give but one emblematic example, I will call upon the criticism of Hanna Arendt which attacked the reduction of human difference to the generality of “zoon politikon” becoming the generic “ Man ” in a reductive understanding of the “rights of man.” Though Arendt did not reject the fact that a certain atheism may have contributed to the end of ethics, she maintained that the totalitarian phenomenon is unique. She also took great care to differentiate her philosophical questioning from whatever religious position it may be, by connecting the political use of the “divine” to the pernicious nihilism she combats, and that the transcendental schools pretend to fight: “Those who conclude that because of the terrible events of our time we should turn back to religion for political reasons seem to me to show as little faith in God as their opponents.”
After the Shoah, whose horror still defies rationality, including the rationality at the heart of psychoanalysis, the last, but not the least enigma which the third millennium and its galloping globalization confront us with, concerns the mutations of the status of the singular subject itself, which, whatever its forms, was constituted in the wake of the Greek-Jewish-Christian tradition. The disruption of Oedipal structures in the recomposed family – in the complex context of the weakening of paternal authority, the assertion of the psychic bisexuality of the two sexes, assisted reproduction, etc. – do not really abolish, to my mind, the universality of anthropological constants such as were discovered and set down by monotheist religions, and which psychoanalytical experiences since Freud have been trying to elucidate. These disruptions, however, oblige us to confront, with a combination of firmness and tolerance both the ethical codes needed for the subject’s autonomy of thought which were crystallized in the stride of this tradition and through its ruptures; and their transgressive, rebellious, queer or impure contingencies flourishing in the third millenium. A new fact: modern secularization and its new techniques asserts these transgressions not as perversions (of Oedipus, the Law, the symbolic order) but as invitations to modernity to invent new kinships, new families, new legalities.
On the other hand, people whose psychic life has been formed by different religious framework – Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, animism, etc. – and who do not seem to share the same logic of libertarian singularity, yet due to globalization find themselves attracted to certain ideas uncovered and continually developed by psychoanalysis. All these phenomena push us strongly to rethink these discoveries (hence, the triadic trials of Oedipus for example, among others). In a context where religions shy away from these new kinships, new families, new legalities, rather than welcome these challenges, it is up to psychoanalysis to interpret these differences – beyond the clash of religions. And to assure their respect as well as the defense and the illustration of this model of individuation and human freedom of which our therapeutic experience reveals the fecund complexity for individual and collective fulfillment. This is the heritage that tradition has handed down to us, and of which psychoanalysis is the rebellious child who knows how to pay his debts.
I recently presided at an International Standing Forum on Religions, organized by the Psychology Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israeli Psychoanalytic Association, an interdisciplinary institution which aims to examine religious phenomena from a secular perspective. It is an approach that we could continue to pursue with the Freud Museum in Vienna.
While Bagdad, with its Sumerian memory and its Muslim present, but also Pakistan and Afghanistan, are ablaze in daily explosions, while in the shadows of Taliban drug lords working the poppy crop, women in burkas set themselves on fire out of desperation, I return to the meaning of Akeda as explained to me by the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. According to him, Akeda goes beyond any “narrow sense of identity” and opens the path to “dignity in difference.” The Covenant would be a “bond of trust” which manifests the “tender concern of God” since it considers that “a bond does not exclude other bonds” and that, consequently, the traditional enemies of Israel, Egypt and Assyria can be “elected together with Israel,” according to the this quote from Isaiah 19:24-25. The Covenant would not be unique but… double? Triple? Infinite?
Greek-Jewish-Christian civilization alone continues on from rupture to rupture, while breaking with “the threat of tradition” (according to Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt). Today we know that this “broken course” giving rise to extravagant freedoms of which the most precious is the freedom to think—this “broken course” also presents a major risk if we content ourselves with pointing to the abuses of obscurantism, and forget to probe and appreciate the benefits of this “course” itself.
God is not necessary, in fact, but the need to believe – both a carrier net a strangling knot – is, to my understanding, both a pre-religious and pre-political anthropological necessity. An example: I have discovered that the illusion of eternal life can attenuate a fear of death and turn a Carmelite named Saint Teresa of Avila into a ecstatic writer who analyzed herself: “Look for yourself in me,” the Eternal Other was to have said to her; then she transforms herself into a “business woman” who shook up the politics of the Church. On the other hand, present and past history teach me that the promise of absolute love lavished by an Ideal God the Father soothes the sadomasochistic rivalries of brothers…when it doesn’t sharpen them to death. And I question myself, sharing the following conviction: because secularization alone was able to “cut the course of tradition,” we can finally reflect on all traditions, without ecumenism, by putting them into perspective and hearing how they resonate with each other.
6) The Threads of Foundation.
Some theorists have brought our attention to a double Jewish modernity: a normative modernity (which would begin with Herman Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (1919) and with Franz Rozenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921), to develop in the 50s with the rebirth of Jewish thought in France, notably that of Levinas); and a critical modernity with which we associate the names of Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt.
This leads me in turn to propose a third possibility, one which is already underway, in the obscurity which still blankets psychoanalysis and those inspired by it, outside of the blinding brilliance of the globalized spectacle. What I’m referring to is a new way of interpreting the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition informed by psychoanalysis, beyond the severed threads, without limiting reflection to the melancholic contemplation of the “field of ruin” and “fragmented debris” (as Benjamin did). The time has come where it will be possible for the prodigal son and daughter not to return to the father’s house which doesn’t exist in itself, but to recognize their debt to it and to re-begin the house indefinitely, patiently. This would be an infinite refoundation that necessitates the meticulous erudition of archaeologists and historians, as well as the interpretations offered by visionaries, capable of actualizing it.
In my understanding, this process has always been at work. Modernity helps us to become aware of this perpetual re-foundation and invites us to accelerate its pace. Indeed, the mythic past – especially that of revelatory religions – has never ceased to cut itself off from itself (as the rabbis have said). And yet critical modernity, with proponents such as Arendt, is right: the threads were cut here, in the Greek and Biblical tradition in an unheard of way, by the double caesura, first of Christianity, then followed by Enlightenment, of which the seeds were sown in the Baroque Age. And I’m happy to stress this Baroque contribution to the refoundation of the tradition, here in Vienna, in Austria, a major centre of Baroque art. Yet a nostalgic reading could not exhaust the meaning of this double rupture, both radical and prolific in the re-actualizations and sudden revivals of creative subjectivity.
To put it differently, it falls upon us in beginning of the third millennium, to re-evaluate “the cut threads of tradition” taken up by normative modernity and critical modernity in relation to the whole of the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition and what it bequeathed to Islam, and by including in our approach this radical mutation in analyzing discourse that is implied by the Freudian discovery of the unconscious. The “cut threads of tradition” cannot settle for a desolate critical modernity. One must reinterpret the memory it unravels, yet differently from the pioneers before and after World War II (1920s – 1950s).
Born of the break with Christianity, which accentuated the infinite creativity of the speaking subject, activated by the Renaissance, stirred up then quieted by the Protestant Reformation, the revival of the “hidden dimension” became accessible to mystics, notably to those of the Baroque Revolution – a term I prefer to the more common Counter-Reformation. The extraordinary vitality of the Baroque Age was much more than the doubtful and unstable gap between the sign and signification, bandaged by allegories and ready to tip backward into the emptiness of meaning, diagnosed by Benjamin’s melancholic reading, so pertinent in the 19th century, and yet so mute before the likes of St. Teresa of Avila and of the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Baroque Age introduced transcendence into the immanent jouissance of the bodies of both sexes, a prodigious subjectivity-in-love invaded Europe, a jouissance that was continually destructible and endlessly reborn. Carried by the astounding growth of European humanism, halted or animated by the coexistence of Jews and Christians – a situation in which exterminating cruelty alternates with subtle collaboration, more often apocalyptic than fertile – this jubilant subjectivity would take forms both democratic and elitist, mystical and social. It descended into persecution that led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, continued on with the Russian pogroms and culminated in the horrors of the Shoah. Yet it resisted the horrors as well, and survived them. The complex dynamic of this historical and spiritual élan does not only lead to a break with tradition. It reinterprets this tradition and redirects it: not as an “eternal return,” but as a re-foundation in which the “broken” foundation continues to act in subterranean and unconscious ways.
Following the Renaissance and the Baroque Age, this permanent rupture-and-refoundation was continued and radicalized during the Enlightenment. Distinguishing itself from the “bad” modernity with its “tabula rasa” which dominated post-romanticism at the end of the 19th century, another modernity, reborn, baroque and inhabited by Enlightenment values ceaselessly works in a more or less occult, even initiatory way, towards recovering lost time, to transmute and recreate, to find again.
Let us not be afraid of these modernities; they are ours. The Enlightenment “cut the threads of Revelation” but by exclusively pointing to the obscurantist abuse of the need to believe; from this we have harvested the incommensurable advantages of freedom that other traditions envy us and hypocritically practice. Today we know that the audacity of this break flared up often, most notably with the French Revolutionary Terror, and to the point of denying the anthropological and pre-religious universality of this very need to believe which invests I in You and vice versa.
I consider the Freudian theory of the unconscious as one of the finest discoveries of the “cut threads of tradition” in the 20th century because it, precisely, remoulds the “cut”. By remarking that God has become unconscious, psychoanalysis brings about a transmutation of values that can help break down individual resistances inhibiting desire and thought, as well as being able to offer an alternative to those collective losses of meaning we call nihilism. A new modernity stands out against the historic perspective that I’ve just formulated, it is a more-than-critical-modernity. Let us call it analytical.
Am I too optimistic in betting that it is possible, not to install an “eternal return” of tradition as such, but to reinvent/recreate a refoundation? Only an analytical modernity careful to elucidate its antecedents would be likely to take on this task.
Is this elitist analytical modernity for a “happy few” in decline in Europe today? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is only waiting to bounce back – even if only in the Old World, by transferring the historical and spiritual élan of Judeo-Christianity attentive to its modern mutations, onto other emergent and already developed geopolitical zones (China, India). We will then discover––we are already discovering––anthropological constants in the ancient texts that secularization rapidly repressed and which have re-actualized differently in minds and societies over the course of history. We have no other choice regarding today’s conservatisms and fundamentalisms than to link normative modernity with critical modernity by way of analytical modernity which takes up and questions that which, from the cut threads, remains a mutating anthropological constant.
Benjamin found in Proust traces of “immaterial analogies” which “brought back forgotten cosmic experiences”. The need to believe and the pleasure of knowing seem to me, as I hear it from the couch, like pre-political and pre-religious needs which must be fulfilled for the child to acquire language and thought. But doesn’t the psalm, repeated by Saint Paul say just this: “I believed and therefore I spoke”? The ecstasy of Teresa of Avila explored the psychic life which in its essence is amorous. “Know yourself in me” is only possible if I am in love-hate with the other. Only the passionate, sensual, and sublimated risk, transmutes the fundamentally sadomasochistic burn of desire into this remoulding, which drives self-transcendence to happen outside of oneself, into endless works, into active existence: for, the life of the saints themselves is social and transmittable ad infinitum.
To situate the break operated by Christianity and, in an incredibly radical way, by the Enlightenment, in the complex history of ruptures and interweavings of Judaism and Christianity (others will do this with Islam), means that, through the prism of secularization, we pick up the thread of these biblical interpretations which, from the foreigner and modern critique, constitutes the “hidden figure” par excellence that re-invents Revelation. Is this not one of monotheism’s major strengths: not to simply repeat itself as is, but to perpetually reinvent itself through its constant ruptures? Through its constant encounters with the strange and the modern?
As a conclusion, I would like to ask you to take this reflection as an invitation to journey down a long road that goes back to prehistory, runs through the Unconscious, and heads toward the unknown. I would gamble that it opens a new phase for encouraging our common ambition to explore the memory of religions while using analytical experience as our guide, and with the contributions of all other human sciences and philosophical developments of those who wish to join us. Thanks to Freud, to the Freud Museum in Vienna, and to all of you.
N.B. This lecture, with some changes and additions, is based on the opening lecture of the 2008 Forum on Religions in Jerusalem.