HISTORICAL UNDERSTANDING AS SENSE OF HISTORY: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry
Howard F. Stein, Ph.D
Generally it is infinitely better to have no history than to keep up in the people the inclination to falsehood. It is a wrong piety to wish to cover up the errors of our fathers; the only means of honoring the memory of our fathers consists of abandoning their mistakes.
—Ernest Denis La Bohème depuis la Montagne-Blanche.
Introduction: A Sense of History
The subject of this essay is history: what it is, what it is for, what makes for its plausibility, and what accounts for its universality.1 By saying historical understanding, I confine myself neither to the discipline of history nor to the professional undertaking called historiography, although I also do not exclude them. Rather, the wider net I cast is on the phenomenon of creating and having some sense of history, that is, what man imagines mortal time to mean, and why with unyielding conviction he locates himself within its framework. It is part of a larger study of the psychoanalytic meaning of cultural meaning.
By virtue of having language, we are able to communicate with one another about reality and thus improve our collective alloplastic mastery, enhance our adaptation, and thus increase our survival value. At the same time, we are able to use language for literally new unlimited vistas of the imagination to which we can apply magical thinking. To name is to call, if not summon, into being. And if what is named is needed to allay anxiety, one can be sure that proofs will not be long forthcoming to demonstrate its existence. History, I propose, is one such system of thought.
Any sociogenic theory of history without an underlying psychogenie explanation is stagecraft without dramaturgy. Among the behavioral and social sciences, psychoanalysis is unique in its “preoccupation … with the purposes and symbolic content of thought” (La Barre, 1951, p. 85), which makes it an essential tool by which to understand the historic mode of thinking. Moreover, because of the close tie between fantasy and act (even the inhibition of action), psychoanalysis can establish the elusive link between historical thinking and historical action.
One might begin with the self-evident observation that every known human group has a history about itself, beginning with an origin myth that narrates how the group came into being. Each history tells how the past, present, and anticipated future are of a fabric woven of the same cloth, how persistence of the immutable theme is assured in the face of endless variations. Every history offers instruction into how heroes are born and/or made, who qualifies as a culture hero, and the nature of heroism itself. History commemorates a people’s victories, defeats, aspirations, disappointments, hopes, and dreads. Events of even the remote past are personally experienced as though they had been directly branded on the human spirit in the present. A sense of history everywhere plays a monumental role in human affairs, so much so that history is rarely experienced as a sense but as inexpugnable fact in reality. The “self-sameness and continuity over time” by which Erikson (1959) has characterized identity is the essence of history: the meaning of human life within time as imagined and enacted by members of that group.2
Whatever else history is, it is the experience of unbroken continuity of present and future with the past, the sense of solidarity over time. Examples abound, and a few must suffice, if only to recount the obvious. Every Serbian child is taught that the fateful year 1389 is the turning point in history, that moment when on the plain of Kossovo the Turks routed the Serbs and forced them into centuries of subservience. Poles look to the three hammer-strokes of partition as the indelible national tragedy. German nationalists of the 1930s looked to the humiliation of defeat in 1918 as a turning point which must be reversed. Jews keep aflame the memory of the destruction of the two Temples, the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the second by the Romans in 70 A.D.
If the reverse side of mourning is celebration, this too flourishes in history. For Americans, the beginning of the 1776 Revolutionary War marks the dividing line between an oppressive past to be overthrown and a liberating future to be summoned into being; 1905 and 1917 do the same for the Soviets, 1948 for the Jews, 1789 for the French, and so on. Western civilization marks the year 1683 as its heaviest sigh of relief, for it was in that year that the eastward spread of the barbarous Turks was halted—at the very gates of Vienna, city of dreams.
One could do likewise with a virtually inexhaustible number of categories of history. What unites them is that they are rallying points in time which are used to delineate unmistakably, both in re-creation and origin, the boundaries of “us” and “them,” and equally, the boundary between the memorable and the forgettable (if not repressible).
Goldschmidt (1977), in his 1976 presidential address to the American Anthropological Association, writes:
A culture is revealed in its history. To know the past is to know how things came to be, but to know how the past is perceived, is to know how things are. For, though the past is history, history is not the past. It is the Dreaming of the Aranda, the Kachinas coming to the Kivas from the San Francisco Peaks; it is parable (p. 297).
Further, history never consists of isolated impressions of the past: it is always a system, what must be recognized as a delusion of reference with respect to time.
Contrasting science with sacred culture, La Barre (1951) writes:
… in folkloristic terms the past explains the present, not the reverse; to suppose past tradition sustains present folklore requires retrospective falsification of revelation. We believe what we believe about the Unknown partly for historical reasons, and partly for projective psychological, not cognitive reasons. Cognitive science is essentially anti-historical; it seeks ahistorical validities on grounds of present testing, not of traditional authority or of sacred past revelation. More than any other, this epistemological shibboleth of ground for belief critically distinguishes the adult mind from the infantile authoritarian personality (pp. 156-157).
Whatever else history is, it is sacred tribal (group) authority. Like the God-idea with which Freud concludes his psychohistorical essay Moses and Monotheism, history has a compulsory quality to it: it must be believed. To those for whom historical world-view is the world itself, history is anything but provisional. It is a diurnal “myth-dream” from which we shudder to awaken. Indeed, in every society, history is meant to inspire reverence, not critical thoughtfulness. The only legitimate thinking is strikingly antiphonal: one is taught questions that presuppose certain unambiguous answers, both of which lie within a single system of thought and which rest on inaccessible unconscious premises. One who truly thinks ahistorically is both heretic and traitor.
The psychic function of history is to avoid time, to replace time with substitute memories, screen memories onto which the real past is displaced and by which it is symbolized—to re-present a fantasized reality more compelling than reality. As obsessively as history is re-membered and as compulsively as it is recited and kept, its paradoxical purpose by reiterating the point is to miss the unconscious point. Sacred history substitutes a Platonistic world of words and images reified so as to preserve the defense against mortal time. As Ebel (1980b) writes:
Why do we love our memories in this feverish, anxious way? A psychoanalyst might suggest that what we are doing as we flood ourselves with the bits and pieces of what we remember is to forget—to “repress”—the very earliest of our memories, which for so many of us are extremely painful. Anxious as they are, our memories are still substitutes for those we find literally unbearable (p. 1).
At least two generations have grown up with George Santayana’s famed dictum that people who forget history are condemned to relive it. Yet somehow, schooled as we are in the recall of history, the formula for preventive medicine has failed to work. It would seem that historical memory is itself the problem. Our fateful amnesias are filled in with collective screen memories (recollection governed by retrospective falsification) by which we enshrine histories in order to enshroud the past. Forgetting—repression—is only one side of it. Literate and preliterate societies alike overlearn their official histories, those shared party lines and official pieties which each generation wishes to ensure that the next generation never forgets. We remember the representations of our defense mechanisms, not the traumata and conflicts we seek to avoid.
Our psychoanalytic reply to Santayana’s warning is that history is our collective way of agreeing not to remember the past but to replace it with a myth, a shared dreamwork about the past. One can hardly learn from a past in which one is immersed in the present. Thus James Joyce’s exclamation through the mouth of young Stephen Daedalus, “History is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awaken,” is the beginning of insight into what history is for: for him, a nightmare to recover from; for most, a cozening narcotic to dull the senses. One can safely advance the formula: we learn history so that we do not have to know the past, personal and group. As a consequence, in history there is an uncanny prescience of eternal sameness—one that, I hasten to add, one dare not tamper with. Everything changes, but nothing moves. Time stands still, affixed in the need for eternal return.
History As Dreamwork
It is essential to place history in the context of ego functioning. Boyer (1969) writes that one function of the ego is
to disguise unconscious conflicts so that they can reach consciousness in forms which permit their discharge without producing incapacitating anxiety and guilt. The dream is a major form of mental activity which seeks to accomplish this aim (p. 6).
The manifest content of the dream represents its latent content in a form which has been masked by the dream work. The manifest dream is a cryptic message which requires deciphering to permit the investigator to uncover the preconscious and unconscious conflictual ideas and feelings which has let [sic] to its formation (p. 7).
Discussing the genre of fairy tales or Märchen, Boyer notes the importance of variations between individuals and over time. Tales change over time
to disguise its themes so that they are less obvious and potentially disturbing. The alterations resemble the secondary revision to which dreams are subjected on recall, for more adequate disguise. They make the stories more suitable for the expression through them of troublesome conflicts with diminished guilt and anxiety (p. 8).
Boyer then summarizes, noting
how psychoanalytic patients have been found to use folklore as a group-supported means of expressing and transiently resolving unresolved, repressed infantile conflicts, as a complement to the defensive and adaptive functions of individual dreams, fantasies, and daydreams (p. 10).
What I wish to emphasize here is the transitoriness of such symbolic representations (folklore, history). They are inadequate, inherently unstable, for the same dynamic reasons that symptoms are in need of repetition and revision: the pressure from the unconscious for the return of the repressed. The persistence of the folklore or the history requires the irresolution of the underlying conflicts. Were the latter resolved, the former defense-representations would be superfluous.
History itself, or more accurately, the myth of history, is the archetypal great dream of the Culture Hero whose articulation corresponds to the barely conscious, inchoate wish of those whom he addresses and who appoint him to speak for them. His symptom is their original cure, just as their confirmation of his symptom cures him of his isolation by making his defenses valuable public property. Shaman-hero and commoner are addicted to one another. They are made for each other, paranoid authoritarian adult and child, omnipotence and helplessness. The authority of the hero lies in the wish of the communicant. As La Barre (1966) writes:
Charisma is the emotionally déjà vu. The “charisma” of the culture-hero is the measure of the appetizingness and appositeness of his dream message to the unconscious minds of his fellows. The culture-hero does the dreamwork for his society (p. 233).
When the hero dies he is immortalized, for he cannot, he must not be allowed to die, for were he to die, those left behind would of necessity be on their own. The legacy of the hero, then, is a permanent transitional object, myth, the very culture which sees him in itself, and the very history which he now comes to personify. The charisma of history is the emotional rightness of an abstracted phylogenesis in resonance with a wished-for ontogenesis.
The Dreaming or Dream-time invariably had a mythic beginning, when, as among the Australian Arunta, the “Eternal Ones of the Dream” appeared on earth in ancestral time. Yet, as Röheim (1945) shows from his translation of altjira, time and person are by no means unambiguous: this term can mean a dream, an ancestor, those beings who appear in a dream, or a story (pp. 210-211). Perhaps altjira is an apt metaphor of history itself, conscious and unconscious, dream and myth, reality and fantasy, object and imagination, past, present, and future merge into gauzy indistinguishability. As La Barre (1966) notes:
“Just as the dream preserves sleep in the individual and holds the real world at arm’s length, so also sacred culture preserves the intellectual sleep of the society”(p. 235).
History is not a sense of the past only passively perceived. It is, let us say, a process of continuous revelation in the ritual-myth cycle and on the stage of reality, yet whose fundamental premises go unchanged despite endless ptolemism, revisionism, and revolutionism in thought. The present and future are coerced to conform with the arrow of history so as to realize dream-time in mortal-time. History does not merely happen, it is bidden. Reality is enlisted in the service of making dreams—pleasant and horrific—come true.
Reality: History as Sacred or Secular
We are immediately confronted with the issue of the reality of history. Certainly it is experienced as real—indeed, more real than rational argument or disconfirming data is likely to persuade the True Believer otherwise. In his seminal essay on historical actuality, Erikson (1964) distinguishes between reality and actuality:
Reality … is the world of phenomenal experience, perceived with a minimum of distortion and with a maximum of customary validation agreed upon in a given state of technology and culture; while actuality is the world of participation, shared with other participants with a minimum of defensive maneuvering, and a maximum of mutual activation (pp. 164-165).
Reality as freed of delusions and actuality as freed of acting-out are, of course, analytic ideals. Yet consensually validated actuality in large measure leads to severe distortions of reality. One might say that a culturally shared actuality principle assures the unreachability of the reality principle. Official history in effect replaces human biological time, just as the obsessive-compulsive thought and act are a compromise between the wish and the prohibition such that the original trauma, conflict, and ambivalence are averted.
What is at once so revolutionary, and therefore, so vehemently denounced or deafeningly ignored, about the psychoanalytic perspective is the unreality it discloses about historical reality. In the beginning was fantasy, which led to a cognitive set and thence to an acting-out which confirms inner reality on the social and natural stage.
Behind the very origin and function of culture is the denial of painful reality and substitution of a group-defense against inner phantasms. Much, if not most, of human culture-history has been governed by what must be called an unreality, that is, fantasy, principle. This does not imply that reality plays an unimportant role in history, but rather specifies how that role is performed. It is not, as we would commonsensically (that is, countercathexis) expect, reality which causes the sense of history, but instead the inner sense which weaves outer events into an ongoing, self-consistent grand scheme of meaning. Reality is selectively distorted and is thus perceived as confirming the inner sense of what history must be.
The analytic understanding of history traces, I believe, to the discovery by Breuer and Freud that hysteria is a pathology of the past, that is, that current, persistent symptoms are a compromise-formation which symbolize some traumatic event or recurrent affect-laden pattern in the distant personal past. One avoids return to it, yet meets it disguised as everpresent. Hysteria is both a point of fixation (and subsequent developmental arrest) in the ontogenetic past, and a point to which one would regress under stress.
Likewise one can discern in human societies cultural, like characterological, fixations in the form of what Fine (1977) calls adjustment neuroses derived from developmental arrest in the group phylogenetic past. The decisive breakthrough in psychoanalysis came when Freud revised his earlier Lamarckian, even Jungian, interpretation of the Oedipus complex as inherited through genetic or racial memory, to a recurrent, personal experience in the life of each human being as a result of being a human animal.
Any rigid distinction we might impose between historical or secular texts and mythological (folkloristic) or sacred texts is certain to distort the group sense of history we are trying to understand. Both our own categories of culture and those of the group(s) we study often deceptively compartmentalize (split) what ought to be psychodynamically linked. What holds for the institutions of the mind ought also apply to social institutions. Indeed, as Benedict (1934) observed, “the significant sociological unit is not the institution but the cultural configuration” (p. 244). Cosmology cannot automatically be classified separately from history, any more than the supernatural can be distinguished from the natural. It is the very essence of mortal heroes to become immortalized and join the pantheon. Supernatural, because suprahuman, history is the sacred narrative of those human acts deemed by the group as worthy of being immortal. Psychologically stated, those events and sequences in natural and social reality which correspond to dominant themes in the shared unconscious group-fantasy are subsequently adopted into that group’s offical (sacred) history.
One can perform a simple test to determine whether or not an item of history is sacred: challenge it or offer an alternative interpretation. If one is met with deadly silence, fierce rebuttal, calumny, or disbelief then one can be sure he or she has tapped into a sacred fact that symbolizes something which to the believer must not be allowed to be doubted, let alone proven false. History, one might say, is the sanctification of human time that is meant to compel persistent belief, not dispassionate debate. History is final, never provisional—even when it is forever revised.
“Religion,” wrote the philosopher Whitehead (1965), “is the longing of the spirit that the facts of existence should find their justification in the nature of existence” (p. 83). The same is true for all group ideologies and institutions. “The facts” are of course inseparable from “the nature” of which they are adduced to be proof. Data are gathered in accordance with an hypothesis that cannot be disconfirmed, since one’s very method (or methodology) is governed by a worldview whose very unconscious purpose is to provide the means of finding what one seeks. Non confundar in aeternam.3 The shared delusional character of ideological commitment must be admitted. It is not a matter of playful illusion (iludio: to play), for play possesses a carefree, open-ended quality that is the opposite of systematized, inexpugnable delusion which is too deadly earnest to allow room for novelty or nonsense.
History, Repetition Compulsion, and Ritual
Devereux (1953) writes that “in mythology, as in dream-work, we seem to be confronted with the basic fact that _plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose_”4 (p. 140). It is no different for history, which obeys the same rule of repetition compulsion. History is the fantasied and lived out cycle of myth and ritual in mortal, natural time; likewise, religion is the fantasied and lived out cycle of myth and ritual in immortal, supernatural time. To paraphrase Hocart (1970), what myth describes, ritual exacts. The myth cannot exist apart from its recitation. Narrative and narration are text and dramatization. Ritual is the compulsory side of myth, while myth is the obsessional side of ritual.
No wonder, then, that history in the flesh, like ritual dramaturgy, possesses a déjà vu uncanniness, confirming wish with sensate fact. What La Barre (1975) writes of ritual-dance describes precisely the function of history in the making: “Dancing by ritual participants kinesthetically ‘confirms’ the reality of myth: compulsive act coerces obsessive belief. That belief is the wished-for, and that others join in mutual support of belief, together make ritual a hypnotic-hallucinatory social substitute for reality” (p. 18). Unremarkably, reality is generously compliant (and pliable), for what one wishes to find he need only to seek.
History thus faces time Janus-faced: the shared screen memory of the past, and the template for its recurrent confirmation in the future. The present is pivotal, for it must lead to that future that so resembles the past. History is thus not merely a cognitive schema, or a narrative and narration which re-present shared fantasy in time-past; it is as well an enactment, an acting-out of the representation in social reality such that behavior and perception of that behavior confirm the group basic assumptions which led to the act and the perception of the act. In this context, if history is cognitively and perceptually a screen memory of the past, that is, a compromise formation that balances wish and prohibition in remembrance of things past, history is also, to use a much neglected concept of Gadpaille (1967), a screen action. In the analytic context, a screen action represents both the inhibited activity or change of behavior and the phantasies responsible for its inhibition. I propose that the term “screen action” be used for this specific class of behavior. By analogy with screen memory, the action which preoccupies the patient carries all the emotional intensity of the unconscious phantasies, but it is a displaced, attenuated and innocuous representation of the phantasy content (p. 166).
Of course, on the stage of history one witnesses behaviorally all perverse varieties of acting-out which are far from the inhibitions of those schizoid patients which Gadpaille has in mind. Still, even this florid acting-out has the quality of screen action since the behavior is a displacement and representation of and substitute for behavior that cannot be discharged toward their original psychohistorical objects.
History is both a group screen memory and a template for behavior in present and future. One can discern in historical action precisely the disguise-compromise-displacement quality of screen action in the living out of those screen memories we call history.
History cannot be, by this definition, therapeutic, since therapy requires a change in premises, an unmasking of cathexes behind well-worn defenses, a working through of conflict such that history does not need to repeat itself. Yet it is of the essence of history to repeat itself, not in the mere Toynbeean or Spenglerian descriptivist sense of cycles, but in the dynamic sense which bespeaks the inability to let go of particular cycles of anxiety and acting-out. History is a repetition-compulsion writ large. The dynamic is the same as the individual neurotic; only the social scale differs. And when history recurs, it is met as much with surprise as with déjà vu of relief or horror. Indeed, “history is the movement by which society reveals itself as what it is.” It is only the nature of that movement that is problematic.
Psychoanalysis cannot be faulted for noting the fact that societies, like neurotics, are trapped by their own history in a Sartrean “No Exit” from which they do not leave even when the door is opened. It is the very need to continue making the same mistakes that makes historical groups (cultures) immune to self-corrective feedback. The tiresome assertion that psychoanalysis ignores history or treats people as though they were in an historical vacuum is itself a symptom of scholars’ resistance to acknowledging the locus of history. Whether from the point of view of the individual patient or of the group-shared unconscious fantasy of history, history is experienced ahistorically, timelessly. Most historians, like other scholars, simply look for history in the wrong places (though “right” from the distortive point of view of a group’s official party line, e.g. in great men, economic determinism, environment, catastrophe, etc.).
Take, for example, the matter of discovering enemies, within and without. The Nazis quickly found their cancerous Jews, Gypsies and Bolsheviks; the Bolsheviks first rid Holy Russia of the corrupt counteroedipal Tsar (but, not the Kremlin), and later the capitalistic Kulaks; Jews perennially have accepted the martyr-role, only to find themselves at the recurrent mercy of Amalekites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, Christian Crusaders, Cossacks, German Nazis, and nationalist Arabs; in Kenya, pastoralist Masai and agriculturalist Kikuyu each represent the less-than-human to the other; in Papua, New Guinea, the placid Mountain Arapesh, among whom not an angry word is supposedly spoken, find the nearby Plains Arapesh as sorcerers who will do their dissociated malicious and hostile bidding for them; first the Great Russians, and later, their Soviet successors, expanding geopolitically to encompass an entire continent, yet feeling tightly swaddled, forever in search of a warm water port; aggressive, action-ready American men readily describe the Soviets as imperial-minded and hostile; and, most recently, nativistic Shiite Iranians see in America the evil personification of oedipal violation of the sacred national mother who must now be defended and avenged by a religicoethnic purity personified by the stern grandfatherly Ayatullah Khomeini. It is as though history is a continuous process of self-definition through opposition.
My association of history with ritual is neither idle nor fortuitous, for ritual is the heart of historical memory, re-membering, and recurrence. Of course, in psychoanalysis, unlike more relativistic anthropology, ritual has acquired a consistently bad name. Ritual is something to be freed from.
Erikson (1966) heroically has attempted to rescue “ritual” from a strictly pathographic connotation. He proposes that behavior to be called ritualization in man must consist of an agreed-upon interplay between at least two persons who repeat it at meaningful intervals and in recurring contexts; and that this interplay should have adaptive value for the respective egos of both participants (pp. 602-603).
Yet even this effort poses difficulties. If we are to limit ritual repetition to reciprocal contexts, then what are we to make of individual idiosyncratic repetitive patterns that likewise occur at meaningful intervals and in recurrent contexts? Is it not possible to locate the process of such agreement not only within social institutions, but by an unconscious compromise within the institutions of the mind?
However, even if we concur that ritualization can be private as well as interpersonal, our decision to term a ritual pathological or nonpathological depends on what we mean by two key words in Erikson’s definition: “meaningful” and “adaptive.” The former points inward to an assessment of the meaning of meaning, the location within the psychic economy of something assigned special significance. The latter points to Reality, more specifically, the degree of apodicticity and distortion in one’s assessment of the social and natural world. What I read to be an ambiguity in Erikson’s definition nonetheless identifies those two issues that lie at the core of any clinical assessment of patterned, repetitive sequences: internal representation and object-relation (with the cumulative object being Reality itself).
One may distinguish between ritual and other types of patterned, repetitive sequences, on the basis of whether the act is performed in the service of adaptive reality testing or in the service of assuaging anxiety whose source is the psyche but which is obdurately experienced as coming from without. The dynamic content or meaning makes the decisive difference in determining whether the repetition is coerced, compulsive from within, or adaptive to a reality perceived through the anxiety-free sphere of the ego.
Following psychoanalytic thinking, I take ritual to be the enactment of a symbolic statement about something else in which (a) that something else is inaccessible to the consciousness of the participant, and (b) the iteration of that statement resists change, or, if it does change, becomes for however long it is used, a regimen that must not be questioned by participants. Ritual, then, is a way of not communicating about something directly while re-presenting it in disguise (as in a screen memory of a dream).
Ritual is closed-system thought and action. It ipso facto cannot be adaptive to reality, since the mythic thought and its performance replace reality with itself. Ritual is thus not only distortive, but delusional thought put into deed. Ritual is thus a behavioral system of actions of reference that confirm the belief about the nature of reality (ideas of reference) by acting it out. A crucial dynamic factor in ritual is its need for constant repetition, whether idiosyncratic or in regularized group enactments. Whatever it is that has been alleviated symbolically can never be resolved so long as it is managed exclusively at the symbolic-ritual level rather than at the deeper level of its unconscious meaning to the communicant.
Of course, to the participant, the meaning is the ritual—just as, to the snake phobic, the snake is the adversary. To the participant, the symbol is not a symbol, it is reality. Likewise, the enactment of the ritual is absolutely essential so that the belief be confirmed by sensate experience—a day-dream in which one is the central character. How much more dereistic can thinking get? Far from deepening our awareness of self and reality, ritual narcotizes that awareness. What a symbol is used for, not what it purportively is (an epistemologically erroneous Jungianism or existential cop-out), determines its clinical status.
Far from ritualization being selected-for as an adaptive response toward the attainment of practical outcomes it is in fact dangerously maladaptive: The reality to which we are adapting, under the influence of ritual, is a timeless dream-world made in the image of our anxieties, conflicts, and wishes. The very ritual process we use to defend us against the unknown (ourselves and reality) makes us even more vulnerable and helpless. And this, for the simple reason that we use symbolism to misdefine the problem, and ritual to solve the wrong problem. It is no wonder that the ritual process among groups is identical to the vicious cycle of psychopathology among lone neurotics or psychotics: every new, erroneous solution becomes a new problem for which yet another ritual must be devised, further removing the participant from the source of the need for the ritual in the first place. The context upon which ritual is ultimately dependent is the unconscious.
Childhood: An Inner Source of History
A more fundamental level from which to understand the basis for the creation of and commitment to any culture lies in the species-specific biology of the human animal, specifically, the trinity of the nuclear family (mother, father, child), and the human infant’s specialization, so to speak, in infancy. Such prolonged dependency and symbiosis makes, Januslike, both for learning, hence adaptability, and for the inappropriate and ineffectual extrapolation of infantile modes of thought and behavior into adult life. It is this latter that provides the experiential foundation for man’s enterprise in history making.
The spectacle of cultural variation is indeed edifying, but should not deceive us into mistaking local variations for the themes whose universality lies in precultural human nature. At their most elemental, hence most potent, mankind’s collective realities lie in the mere fact of childhood, the sharing of a common ontogenetic and phylogenetic past. History is man’s temporal collective self-representation. What the human species as a whole, and particular groups at a given time, select to include in their official histories, are marvelous clinical self-disclosures, if one has only the wit to look for explanation in the right place, not in the social reality which is the arena for externalization, but in the early reality of the child, now consciously re-membered where it is safe.
Yet history, like ritual, arouses in us the very anxiety we use it to assuage and deny. It must be constantly shored up, revised (as in revisionism) in keeping with the inability of histories ever to be complete enough to deflect an implacable reality that can be neither coerced nor written to conform to infantile wish. The locus of history is not the historic past of reality, but the psychohistoric past of childhood’s unfulfilled and unfulfillable wishes, dependencies, anxieties, points of fixation, psychic splits into beatific angels and devouring witches or rescuing princes and murderous ogres. Through history the ontogenetic past is preserved yet mystified, and projected onto the social plane where, like the paranoiac looking for his ubiquitous enemy, it is—mistakenly—discovered, and its reality confirmed by the matching of perception with motivation. Through the act of the subconscious, culturally sacred time is elevated to the suprapersonal plane of the supernatural, wish triumphant. Life, indeed, where is thy sting?
To the naive tribalist of any type of group, history is not the folklore about the past, but an objective, almost tangible fact independent of oneself: one need only the consensus-based wits to perceive. Only to the outsider is history a subjective narrative. History is revealed, recorded, preserved, and hypercathected precisely to the extent that it passes the internal censor and can thus be experienced symbolically as anxiety-free, since the locus of the nondisplaced history is both onto a suprapersonal collectivity and exists with a force of its own. The very social reality that is the stage for the discharge of shared unconscious fantasy is perceived by members of the group as the source of objective history.
The very plausibility of origin myths such as the Biblical Eden lies in the intrauterine amniotic Nirvana, postnatal symbiosis with the mother, subsequent cruel expulsion, the fact and realization that one is indeed psychologically separate from the mother, the oedipal replacement of the eternal dyad with the eternity-shattering triad, and the inability of reality to conform to inner wish. The archeological search for the cradle (!) of civilization is certainly legitimate, so long as one does not confuse the issue of human geography or irrigation with tiresomely timeless inner psychological reality which repeats itself with every generation. The family romance is the child’s first foray into history, the predisposing familiarity for later investment in official history—and maladaptive distortion of reality. Although cultures are in part man’s cumulative tool of adaptation to physical reality, they are also an inventory which men adopt to conform outer reality to inner experience. Hartmann’s (1958) felicitous phrase, the “average expectable environment,” is not only that ideal psychological coadaptation between mother and child, but that cumulative representational system which Hallowell termed a “behavioral environment” that is “culturally constituted.”
The group-fantasy is the secret editor which utilizes aspects of physical and social reality to symbolize inner reality, to re-present to it what it needs to see. Group reality testing is consensus in the service of allaying anxiety, not dispassionate search for truth independent of wish. Hence the function of historical group-fantasies is, as DeMause (1979) writes, “to act out and defend against repressed desires, rages and prohibitions which have their origins in childhoods common to the group” (p. 8). Most importantly: “It is only when an historical event is invested with important unconscious tasks that it has later causal effects at all” (p. 9). The return of the repressed is occasioned by the similarity of the event (i.e. trauma) at the social level to an earlier traumatic childhood event or traumatizing pattern.
Customarily, transference phenomena have been regarded as virtually unique to the experience in psychoanalytic treatment. However, as Nunberg (1951) points out
the tendency to “transfer” infantile experiences into reality and to act them out can be observed not only in the transference situation but also independently of it. An urge to establish identity of perceptions through repetition of past experiences is thus, in conformity with Freud’s ideas, undeniable (p. 3).
The past is seen as active, even incarnate, in the present, even when it is not. The necessary connection of logic and perception is affective. Without the affective valence, the present situation would be only itself, not a re-presentation, a re-living of the past. Transference thereby becomes a key to the nature of history itself. To quote Nunberg again:
Repetition compulsion points to the past…. Repetition compulsion tries to fixate, to “freeze,” the old psychic reality, hence it becomes a regressive force…. Through transference the patient lives the present in the past and the past in the present. In his speech he betrays a lack of feeling for the sequence of events, which is conceived of as time (p. 5).
As in dreams, patients
condense experiences from different periods of their life into one event and can keep them apart only after thorough analysis, etc. The fact that the patient loses the sense of time in the transference situation is not surprising, as it corresponds to the phenomenon that repressed unconscious events, events of the past, are experienced in the present as if no time has elapsed. Indeed, we know from Freud that the unconscious is timeless (p. 5).
Recovery from the captivity of one’s unconscious past is recovery from the dreamlike history which repeats itself. One enters time. Again Nunberg:
As soon as the patient becomes conscious of his transference, he gains the ability to assess his actual feelings in relation to the infantile situation. This helps him to distinguish between the images returning from the past and the perceptions of external, actual objects, and thus to test reality better than before (p. 5).
Reality loses its hallucinatory, déjà vu, quality, as one is able to distinguish between memory and percept. Reality testing is enhanced because there is a reality perceived as separate from oneself to test, because language itself is decathected.
One is reluctant to extrapolate from the individual, troubled patient, to group behavior, especially to cultures, those very groups in which we have invested—that is to say, projected—our selves. Yet, to put the issue another way: Why should human groups, which must collectively cope with unconscious human material, and which form in large part to supplement inadequate private defenses, not be subject to the same law of historic timelessness and for the same reasons that individuals bend reality in transference?
Culture, Group Fantasy and History
History enacts on the social and natural stage not only the inner world of people who share a common culture-history, but, at an even deeper level, the inner world of people who, phylogenetically, share a common species-specific human biology whose psychically most prepotent experiences are prolonged helplessness, postuterine symbiosis, and the universal nuclear family trinity of mother-father-child, with its fateful oedipal conflict. One must conclude that man creates historical reality in the image of his shared inner-fantasy, not the reverse, and discovers externally what he blithely externalizes, that is, projects.
Biologically speaking, the earliest experiential precursor of the group-self, one that gives plausibility for its later re-construction and re-presentation, is the intrauterine amniotic nirvana, and later, the postpartum psychobiological symbiosis of mother and infant. Regressively, one seeks from the group an undifferentiated Oneness, beneath and beyond ambivalence. Yet, mother-love is inevitably imperfect, no match for infantile need. Separation-individuation is a painful, never completed process of relinquishing fusion for uncertain autonomy. Fear of engulfment vies with the wish for dependency. In the group, one relives the ambivalence he would escape—only now symbolically. Ambivalence undermines idealization, as it heightens defensive maneuvers to shore up what threatens to return from repression. However, if one must maintain the delusion of perfect goodness within the group, then any badness must be group-alien, projected on some available Other(s) who, for unconscious reasons of their own splitting, are willing to be engaged.
We are in a position now to account for those collective realities such as give rise to collective representations from religion to history (Durkheim, 1961). As Koenigsberg (1975) writes, “Cultural ideas, beliefs and values may be viewed … as an institutionalization and social embodiment of primal human phantasies” (p. viii). He proposes that we carefully comb the cultural texts themselves for primary process imagery embedded in official culture, for those parapraxes, metaphors, and the like that make their incursion into conscious ordinary language. For instance, in his content analyses of the unconscious component of Hitler’s ideology as expressed in published works, speeches, and secret writings, Koenigsberg states as his methodological premise that “the frequency with which a given idea or association appears … [reflects] the centrality of such an element within the framework of [the] belief-system” (p. ix).
Various scholars have coined somewhat differing concepts to express those underlying commonalities in human groups: identity with Erikson, social character with Fromm, modal personality with Kardiner and DuBois, national character with Mead, ethnic unconscious with Devereux, etc. The irreducible common denominator to all these concepts is the influence of shared early experiences on adult personalities which makes possible their subsequent emotional investment in social collective representations. The representations they re-present are early developmental realities now disguised.
La Barre (1962) notes the dynamic identity between culture and neurosis, if not psychosis, since the goal of both is to avoid examining those sacred premises that serve as defense-mechanisms. La Barre writes:
It is true that group fantasy confines and delimits our private psychoses, but if the culture of the group comes to resemble a psychosis itself, by a kind of folie à deux to the nth degree, then the group is worse off than when it started. In this unconscious and unwitting way, all social groups are in the long run either therapeutic, that is adaptive to a real world, or anti-adaptive. Man is like an existentialist spider who spreads out a moral net of symbolism over the void out of his own substance—and then walks upon it. But the final safety of the net depends always on the integrity and the soundness of the postulated points of reference to a real physical world (p. 67).
I am here reminded of Ruth Benedict’s (1934) not-so-strangely forgotten passage in her Patterns of Culture, a work celebrated as the brief for cultural relativism: “Tradition is as neurotic as any patient; its overgrown fear of deviation from its fortuitous standards conforms to all the usual definitions of the psychopathic [or, as we would today say, psychopathological]” (p. 273). Would history, then, not be the shared neurosis of time? La Barre (1966) writes:
In neurosis, the individual strives to cope with the unresolved problems (sexuality, aggression, and so on) of his ontogenic past. Sacred culture is the “phylogenetic neurosis” of the society; a “sociosis” that, for a group of persons, strives to cope with the unresolved problems and anxieties (death, for instance) from the phylogenetic past of the society (p. 231).
The mystified invisible loyalties that so characterize a culture or historic group not surprisingly operate at the social level of the family. Ferreira (1963) coined the term “family myths” to explain just such a process of “homeostatic mechanisms in family life.” For Ferreira,
the term “family myth” refers to a series of fairly well-integrated beliefs shared by all family members, concerning each other and their mutual position in the family life, beliefs that go unchallenged by everyone involved in spite of the reality distortions which they may conspicuously imply…. the family myth is much a part of the way the family appears to its members, that is, a part of the inner image of the group … [It is] accepted by everyone in the family as something sacred and taboo…. The individual family member may know, and often does, that much of that image is false and represents no more than a sort of official party line. But such knowledge, when it exists, is kept so private and concealed that the individual will actually fight against its public revelation, and, by refusing to acknowledge its existence, will do his utmost to keep the family myth intact. For the family myth “explains” the behavior of the individuals in the family while it hides its motives (pp. 55-56)…. to maintain the myth is part of the struggle to maintain the relationship … (p. 60).
Historical groups, cultures, thrive on the very ambivalence they cannot rid themselves of. Paradoxically, the healthiest of groups is that which insists on less, rather than more, of ingroupiness, which demands less of the surrender of the self as the price for tenuous security. As Ebel writes, “What is personal is what, by definition, resists the ‘trends’ and ‘tendencies,’ the circumambient flow of the ‘society”’ (Ebel, 1980a). One can truly utter “we” and mean it—without that reservoir of rage and envy that would consume it—when one can truly utter “I” and mean it.
Ethnocentrism is the narcissism of the group-self, a supreme idealization of all within accompanied by a demonization of those “barbarous” tribes without. Group entropy is the psychosocial outcome of culture history, an inbreeding that assures obsolescence in any other than its own protective bubble. Entropy leads to stagnation or literal dead end, if not both. Self-preoccupation with group specialness or uniqueness necessarily diminishes in one’s eyes the humanity of others, a group narcissism that leads to moral as well as intellectual ghettos. I suggest the following formula to describe the self/other boundary of group identity: If the inner space is sacred, then the outer space is profane. History is one way each group rationalizes this distinction—its ultimate distinctive feature—and keeps it in good repair. Impervious sacralization of one’s own group and imperious desecration of that of others follows in fateful suit.
Since sacred group-history is a species of shared autobiography writ large, to doubt one’s history is to call into question his personal biography now displaced into an impersonal social drama. It is to uncover the mystery of group identity, a mystery whose ineffability and mystique—that is, its distortion as sacred memory—members of that group have much at stake in preserving. As Rappaport (1977) writes: “It is the group mystery that holds people together in it, and provides the basis for sustaining group fantasies of identification across generations” (p. 315).
Conclusion: Beyond History
History is a society’s temporal Rorschach about itself, one which it both designs and interprets. History is the folklore or mythology of group-time, the mythopoetic narrative of time’s mystery, sung by each group’s Orpheus to the tune by which it wishes to be enchanted. To understand the mystic sense of history is to understand the paradox of flow within eternal sameness. History is the flux of time within the sacred timeless truth: as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be, symbiosis without end. History is shared psychological time the sense of continuity of the sacred and abiding amid the evanescent profane and decaying. History compels awe, loyalty, mystery, unquestioning faith. For history is the self’s bulwark against being alone. History is time’s timeless cliche, where ignorance is indeed bliss. History is a group’s mystique of itself in mortal time, just as religion is a group’s self-mystification in cosmic time. The two, of course, merge into murky sameness as social consensus insists upon looking through a glass darkly.
Novelty becomes tiresome yet prophetic expectation, as the Great Theme of history, is divined in the flow of events. One searches for the next expected and expectable variation which later can be cited as evidence for the immutability of the Theme. The great variety in history is remolded by the template of group-timelessness. Group-fantasy freezes history into ahistorical time, coercing reality into a recurrent projective scheme. History thus does indeed repeat itself, propelled by a group-fixation which is both re-presented at the level of social historical reality and acted-out. The repetition compulsion ensures that the sine wave of projection and introjection will continue ad aeternam. The group-psychodrama enacted on the stage of history is not seen as a re-creation, a literal re-staging, of the inner world in the outer, but an event or an ongoing succession of events which confirm spectacularly from without one’s inmost wishes and fears. History becomes the narrative of the vicious spiral of pathology experienced by the group.
Nothing of truly adaptive value is gained through group defenses against shared anxieties. Protection becomes a mutual “protection racket” from which no one must depart. The group must now protect itself from its own protection, for its defenses, like rituals, as much stimulate as allay those fears its members have about their bodies, their relationships, their childhoods, their mortality. Symbolized solutions must of necessity leave unresolved the problem being represented. One never confronts the dissociated except in disguise. In turn, because the disease is misdiagnosed, the treatment not only becomes part of the problem, but a new problem at a new level—a new loop in the widening spiral of psychopathology. As Ebel (1980) observes, one enters, if not helps to create or perpetuate, a group with “the idea that you can surround yourself with security, when it always turns out that you have merely immersed yourself in ambivalence.”
Biological life, not merely death, is the ultimate mockery of human pretensions. History is mankind’s triumph over mortal time—the triumph of denial. History reverses time, as one reverentially pays his respects to the imagined past. Through history the irreversible linearity of human time, of the life cycle, is halted by a retrospectus at eternity. What match is the finality of human biology for the infinitude of the human imagination?
This paper has considered the psychological meaning of history, the function of history in the psychic economy. History has been approached as one among many ideological systems which humans have devised toward the management of ambivalence and anxiety. History has been discussed as a “super”-natural system whose source and latent subject is subconscious conflict and defense. Projective group-history is a way of avoiding personal history. The objectification in time of wish, anxiety, and trauma impair the development of both mature love and reality adaptation (which is but another way of phrasing Freud’s “love and work”).
The ubiquity of historical “illusion” need not incline us to defend it. In coming to know what history is, what it is for, we come less to need its—our—self-imprisoning illusions about who and what we are. In needing less to lose ourselves in timelessness, we are able to find ourselves in the only time truly given to us. We become free enough, which is to say differentiated enough, to be critical of the legacy from the past in order to assess the requirements of the present. In relinquishing history’s enchantment, we gain greater selfhood, object love, and reality adaptation. In relinquishing the false eternity of group-immortality, we gain the real solidarity of standing together. Postoedipal man does not need mythic history. The history-transcendent goal of cultural development ought to be no different from those of personal analysis: where id- and superego timelessness was, there shall an integrated, time-bound ego be.
1 This article is based on a paper presented at the Western Social Science Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 24-26 April 1980. The author expresses gratitude to Drs. Dale Boesky, Melvin Goldstein, George Kren, and Weston La Barre for their critical comments.
2 A theory of universal validity must be able to account for the individual case, and not build an intellectually smarmy floral display of daisies picked a little from here and a little from there. Comparative history, like cross-cultural comparison, provides us with the results of natural human laboratory experiments. It is deceptively easy to be misled into confusing the rich spectacle of diverse symbol and ritual systems for underlying variability. Such has been one unfortunate consequence of the ideology of cultural relativism.
To assert the essential sameness and continuity to all history is to argue that the source of the historical impulse is everywhere the same: the fact of human helplessness; prolonged dependency; neoteny; the family; the vicissitudes of symbiosis; separation and individuation; the castration complex; ego integration/splitting; and the like. Any insistence on distinction in kind (rather than degree) or discontinuity (a) between preliterate societies which do not have a discipline of history, and those (beginning in the Renaissance West) which do; (b) between societies whose official view of time is cyclical and those whose time is lineal (e.g. that of the Judeo-Greco-Christian West, especially post-Renaissance progressive time); © between groups of smaller and larger social magnitude (from band to nation-state); and (d) between relative homogeneity and enormous complexity (from primitive to modern) is a red herring to the essential issues of this paper: what history is for and what it derives from. That is, group history, myth, legend, and folklore are not merely analogous to the dream, symptom, fantasy, and screen memory of the individual (or patient). Instead they derive from the same psychogenetic source and serve the same psychodynamic function. To argue otherwise is to dichotomize between individual and group and come to the untenable conclusion that a group transcends the very people who create it for their mutual defense (alleviation of anxiety as well as solving reality-tasks).
Just how vulnerable even the most advanced, scientific, modern, nation-states are to the Orphic enchantment of “history” is demonstrated by the severe distortions of reality that go by the name of self-justifying official and revisionist histories of 20th century nationalisms—“crisis cults” and “ghost dances” in which people collectively regress to the magical thinking in which “history” prevails and which delusion is to be implemented in reality with the most sophisticated technology. Ironically, this paper supports that fragile Western ego ideal and cultural ethos of progress: science as self-conscious fantasy that is unflinchingly self-scrutinizing.
3 Non confundar in aeternam translates “Let me never be confounded.”
4 plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose translates “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
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