Totem and Taboo – Sigmund Freud


After Freud’s initial success, he was ready
to start taking his early theories and advance them into other areas outside of Psychoanalysis,
and to look deeply at the human condition. One of his most famous and influential books
was Totem and Taboo, which focused on comparing the mental life of primitive societies, their
superstitions, their scapegoating to that of modern individuals under his label of neurosis. With research, from then current anthropologists,
and his influence from Charles Darwin Freud was able to connect his Oedipus theory to
a psychoanalytic original sin, and began fleshing out early understandings of narcissism, which
he later delved into. The book itself provides one of the best understandings
of envy and human conflict in all of literature. In the ancient world, being alone was the
same as certain death. The need to be in a group ensured survival. Yet survival is individual. With scarce resources and a short lifespan,
it was necessary to get your food and sex all in a short period of time to ensure survival
of the current generation and to create another generation. The cooperation of the different members of
society required rules, regulations, punishments and rituals. The tribes, and eventually civilizations,
were able to thrive when this balance was met, and failed when weaknesses were exposed
in wars and revolutions. This friction between individual values, and
collective values becomes a major thread in Freud’s works until his death. How do we get our practical, sexual and emotional
needs satisfied without trampling on other people’s needs? Freud cast this in an emotional ambivalence. On the one hand we have the veneration for
people who are leaders that help us to survive, contrasted with the envy of their power to
access privileges. For example, when things are going well for
me, I like the leader of my country more, even if there’s no connection to their actions
and my success. It changes quickly when my life is falling
apart. The smiling leader just increases the envy
of their privileges. The unconscious thought is that, if the leader
is doing good and I’m doing bad, then the leader is not doing a good job. Freud says, “savages are really behaving in
just the same way with their kings when they ascribe to them power over rain and sunshine,
wind and weather, and then depose them or kill them because NATURE disappoints their
hopes of a successful hunt or a rich harvest.” As powerful as the leader was, their life
or death was often on a thin edge. When the supporters felt that the leader’s
magical powers were failing. Freud compares this idealization, and devaluation
to a paranoic who takes a person and puts all of their own responsibility onto them
to be a leader so they can blame all their misfortunes on them. It feels better to blame someone else than
to take responsibility for your own success. That’s the difference between the hard work
of making success and having it given to you. With these insights it’s very easy to jump
to the modern world of politics and backstabbing, to see that very little has changed. When a politician fails to provide for their
constituents, the envy of their privileges, and the contempt for their lack of success
leads to a regime change. In democracies the blame shifting leads to
fights with words on TV, radio, and social media. In the past, blame shifting could include
the leader trying to scapegoat someone with lesser power, or a revolution to replace the
current regime in a violent fashion. The party afterwards was often a celebration
of the new conquests that were made, and also of the brief solidarity between the members
of the new regime. The following crash into mournfulness was
a grieving for the memories of success with the prior regime, but also the pressure that
the new regime was now under. Can they do better than that last ones? If not, the new regime knows the consequences
if they don’t. Here Freud tries to get a the heart of the
earliest sin, which is children trying to replace their parents to access the rewards,
and to gain their sexually desirable parent for themselves. The fighting creates a need for the taboo. The taboo of incest to Freud is a law to prevent
inter-family fighting. To Freud this early taboo is the beginning
of society and institutions. Individual desires can go any place, but to
keep a society running smoothly, cultures and religions are created. Rituals of eating together, and sharing the
same totem, are rituals to establish cooperation and to prevent competition. Whether it is the Eucharist, or an older ritual,
people are trying to satisfy their private desires, but also making promises not to hurt
or steal from each other at the same time. If we get enough of our desires met, it’s
easier to cooperate. If we don’t, then there’s revolution. Belief in spirits also enters the picture,
in how people feel neurotic about their evil private desires, and how it competes with
their need to belong to others. Because everything is impermanent, we need
memories to make sense of the kaleidoscope of present moment existence. The memories of people can become our ghosts,
Gods, curses, and saviours. We want to imitate the methods of survival
from the leader, but we also want to depose them and take their place. We are conversing with mental representations
in our minds as much if not more than the real people in our lives. Our neurosis can be our guilt over hidden
desires that are alive and well in our minds, but we cannot share with others for fear of
punishment. Our fear of imaginary crimes is reflected
in the original fear of actual crimes. The mental representations of the dead in
our minds can be alive with accusations and demands for justice. Curses can be a form of self-inflicted punishment. Our guilt over what we did or thought about
doing can cause the neurosis. That was an example of introjection, but guilt
can also be projected via suspicion. If we have guilty actions or thoughts in the
past, that knowledge can help us detect guilt in others. With the understanding of transference, we
can see that we take our memories and have emotional attitudes towards those memories. Then we can project those attitudes onto other
people, who we force into a memory pattern we recognize. The way this transference feels in the target
is like the person who is talking to us, is talking about someone else. They get your personal details wrong, and
harsh emotions are projected onto you. Projection feels violating and has a tinge
of lies and smears, where you are put into a box of their memories of wrongdoing. This suspicion of one person increases the
suspicion of others, magnifying the blame. The message the scapegoaters send is that
“you are to blame for ALL the things not going well” in their lives. Targets in real life can be innocent or not
so innocent. With the distortion of conflation, scapegoaters
can take actual blame a target has, and increase the blame further by adding suggestions of
hidden guilt. The desire for revenge in the mob animates
them further, to essentially “burn the witch.” The predictable scenario of a target trying
to individual needs met, against some social mores or taboos, is the beginning. Because these individual desires reside in
most other people, there is an envy and resentment of the unfairness. “If they get away with that, why can’t I?” Leaders often struggle with this problem. They are afraid of the temptation to imitate
the target, and that others might get their similar desires satisfied. Then the rules and taboos that keep the society
together unravel, and so does the leader’s power. The taboo is ultimately something that tempts
imitation, and following the taboo is renunciation of that desire, to preserve the peace of the
society. This is the origin of collective punishment,
where leaders punish the entire group for one person’s transgression. It’s an attempt to prevent the imitation from
being contagious. The threat of this punishment is the source
of ostracism, where people don’t associate with the person who violated the taboo because
they are automatically associated by others as someone who wants to imitate the accused. The problem Freud sees with the leader enforcing
the taboos is that all people, including the leader, have prohibited desires inside themselves. Freud says “in order to keep the temptation
down, the envied transgressor must be deprived of the fruit of his enterprise; and the punishment
will not infrequently give those who carry it out an opportunity of committing the same
outrage under the colour of an act of atonement.” Modern examples would be lawmakers taking
part in corruption they are supposed to fight against. The source of hypocrisy is this ambivalence
between what I want and what is good for society. The value of the leader is their ability to
maintain rules that support the group and also allow enough personal satisfaction so
that it doesn’t destabilize the culture. The leader also has to enjoy their privileges
without taking too much and neglecting the duties of the leader. Any weaknesses in a neglectful society lead
to blame shifting and conflict. Freud lays it out very clearly and points
to some of the experiences victims have at the hands of narcissistic individuals. The superstition has a root in the belief
of the omnipotence of thoughts. Believing that thoughts are reality, and being
constantly disappointed by nature, requires a shifting of blame to others. It’s a lower form of existence that hasn’t
accepted realistic compromises. Until the acceptance of science happens, then
people and objects become an easy target for blame. The need to use talismans, jewels, and to
ascribe magical properties to objects and leaders only gives way when the real life
associations cannot be explained by magical powers. We have to put effort into looking at the
real causes and effects to avoid magical thinking. Totem worship of a Father is replaced by a
Father God, and then science replaces God and the Father in the end for Freud. Here the divide between Rene Girard, and Freud
happens. Rene looks to Christianity to understand scapegoating,
whereas Freud puts Christianity into the same boat as other religions. All of us are looking for a God-Father figure
to get our needs met. This fight itself is in Christianity as followers
ironically scapegoat each other on which version of Christianity to follow, with many of their
own members as casualties. But in Girard’s Christian opinion there is
always worship. If we don’t worship a God, we worship experts. Worshiping experts doesn’t stop the violence
in his view, whereas a Christian example does. We are back at the beginning where the question
of getting our needs met is confronted with how we can live in harmony with others. What I particularly enjoyed about this book
was how it clears up paranoid thoughts about conspiracies. Conspiracies do exist, but they are petty
and all about increasing consumption of every kind. Power allows for more sexual partners, more
resources, special treatment, and allies to defend your wealth. My earlier videos on Narcissists and their
informers simply shows that basic human society devolves into gangsterism, and that every
individual needs to realize that their presence and status is being measured by others at
all times. All the bigotry we see is about trying to
eliminate competition. Our identities are how we get our needs met. Competition towards those identities insecure,
and we feel resentful that the world is unfair, and demand vengeance. This of course leads to violence and war. If we are to aim for better, the highest form
of society is one that flourishes with creativity, giving a place to all types of people. How we can get our needs met is by meeting
the needs of others in ever more creative ways, and learning to relinquish our desires,
and find alternatives if we are tempted by violence towards other competitors.

2 comments

Leave a Reply