Identity question

Freud and the Non-European

by Edward Said


The last of his books to be published in his lifetime (and now in paperback to commemorate the first anniversary of his death), Freud and the Non-European provides an intriguing instance of Edward Said’s method of contrapuntal reading.

To view a writer contrapuntally is to understand their work as “travel[ling] across temporal, cultural and ideological boundaries in unforeseen ways to emerge as part of a new ensemble along with later history and … art”.

The works thus analysed, if they are significantly accomplished and “culturally weighty” enough, are significant beyond the time and location in which they were written.

It is in the vein of this approach that Said turns to Sigmund Freud, not to ferret out what is most unpalatable about the latter’s representations of the “Non-European”, but instead to apply Freud’s Moses and Monotheism to the question of Jewish identity in the context of Palestine.

Said’s objective, perhaps surprisingly, is to unsettle the orthodoxy of self-defining narratives of identity that we encounter in nationalist movements and identity politics alike.

Psychoanalysis is clearly an ally in an agenda of this sort, and Freud is doubly useful, not only anecdotally in terms of his ambivalent relationship to his own Jewishness (which Said types as “hopelessly unresolved”), but, more importantly, in view of his treatment of the figure of Moses, an Egyptian who became not just the leader of the Jews, but as the man who seemed to have created them as his people.

Freud’s thesis undercuts the singular originality of Judaism, arguing, via the mythical murder of the heroic father common to all religions (in this case Moses), an act subject to the dormancy and the return of the repressed, that Judaism constituted itself as a permanently established religion.

This has obvious bearing on the Palestinian question for Said, as it does on any purist or exclusionary notions of cultural identity. Freud, he suggests “left considerable room to accommodate Judaism’s non-Jewish antecedents and contemporaries”.

Rather than seeing Jewish identity as simply beginning with itself, Said, through Freud, sees Jewish identity as coterminous with other Egyptian, Arabian, non-European identities, from which it borrows certain of its most fundamental constituents.

For Freud and Said alike, psychological, like historical, identity is composite, an entity that cannot be “thought or worked through itself alone”, that cannot “imagine itself without the radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed”.

In extending Freud’s ideas into contemporary political issues of nation, identity and dispossession, Freud and the Non-European makes for a pertinent example of the potential intercourse between heterogeneous scholarly concerns and intellectual approaches.

More than this, the text makes for a striking non-psychoanalytic use of psychoanalytic writing, which, in its conclusion, points to a concern that sums up one of the fundamental preoccupations of the late Said’s career, namely the insistence that threatened national/historical/ cultural identities are best addressed not through the palliatives of tolerance and compassion, but through the perspective of a troubling, disabling, destabilising cosmopolitanism “from which there can be no recovery, no state of resolved or Stoic calm, and no utopian reconciliation even within itself”.

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