"Black" and "Jew": Race and the Resistance to Psychoanalysis in Italy

By Pinkus, Karen | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

"Black" and "Jew": Race and the Resistance to Psychoanalysis in Italy


Pinkus, Karen, Annali d'Italianistica


I. Resistance and Race

Psychoanalysis, and in particular, the concept of the unconscious, have traditionally met with a certain resistance in Italian culture. Although Freud's work was embraced by Jewish intellectuals in Trieste before the war, and later even by an idealist like Croce as Jennifer Stone has noted, at the level of a broader (bourgeois or popular) discourse or practice psychoanalysis found primary opposition in the developments of philosophical positivism, and in the Church. (1) It would appear senseless to consider the peculiarity of the so-called analytic situation in Italy without at least noting its ambiguous relation with confession, for example. As a "Jewish" mode of confession, analysis reduces the speaker to a weak being before a castigating god; this leads not to redemption, but to a continual agitation, skepticism, abstraction. Even during the 1950s when the Church felt compelled to recognize the good works of Italian psychiatry (Italy has been in the forefront of social and institutional programs to treat the mentally ill), the Vatican insisted upon the juridical and moral priority of confession over the analyst-client privilege. (2) In addition to the peculiar influence of populist Catholic ideology, others factors shaping the historical antagonism toward Freudian thought in Italy include the political developments of Fascism, and the relatively retarded formation of the Italian bourgeoisie.

Categories of race or ethnicity, and in particular, the uncanny approximation of the fantasized figures of "black" and "Jew" have also contributed to a logics of opposition. In a practical sense, the racialization of psychoanalysis realizes itself most profoundly with the development of the Fascist racial laws in the 1930s. In fact, the Italian Society for Psychoanalysis, founded by Eduardo Weiss, was forced to disband in 1939. Yet at a more abstract level, psychoanalysis in Italy had long been nuanced by race thinking ("race thinking before racism," to borrow Hannah Arendt's terminology); by the deeply entrenched association of Freud with so-called Jewish prophetism, a mode of discourse that was believed to originate in the ancient cults of inferior castes, and in the pandemic and ecstatic forms of the "Southern races" (3) (figure 1). In its essence as a "Southern" science, psychoanalysis might be linked both with a form of demonic possession and an excessive obsession with the effects of such possession. Although many Ethiopians were Christians, racial literature attempted to create a sense of distance from Italy by focussing on demonism as a dominant force in Coptic religious sentiment (figure 2). In part, this "creation" of difference was to allow a space for missionary work to intercede with the indigenous population. Ironically, Mussolini's hierarchy drew on much older literature that understood Islam as the "rightful religion" of the region, to be defended against the heretical Copts. As in the construction of the unconscious as a radically differentiated space, the various maneuvers by racial "scientists" and ethnographers helped to produce accounts of racial inferiority and conflict among the various sub-groups in East Africa, but above all, to produce difference in the proper degree. We might here invoke Homi Bhaba's notion of the colonial encounter as one of mimicry in the psychoanalytic sense; not pure identification, but "a desire for a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite" (Bhabha 131).

Admittedly, it may be difficult to locate cultural associations between racial thinking and psychoanalysis in Italy in comparison with other nations in which racism and anti-Semitism have a richer and more institutionalized legislative history, just as it has always been difficult to penetrate a long-standing and reinforced cultural myth about the lack of inherent racism in Italian subjects. (4) Moreover, one might convincingly argue that given the circumscribed interest in Freud's "new science" among Italian intellectuals, race thinking in the broadest sense, does not exercise any particular influence on psychoanalysis. …

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