Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Last Words: Said, Freud, and Traveling Theory

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Last Words: Said, Freud, and Traveling Theory

Article excerpt

Said's Freud and the Non-European is an attempt to read Freud's Moses and Monotheism in the light of contemporary israeliPalestinian politics. Freud's excavation of Judaism shows its roots in Egyptian monotheism (the Aten cult of Akhenaten), and, therefore, Said argues, the impossibility of any foundationalist or essentialist view of Jewish (and therefore Israeli) identity. This article shows at length that Said projects unto Freud's book what he, himself, deems pertinent for the historical moment, embodying his very notion of "Traveling Theory." The reason for Said's projections is his profound identification with Freud, in particular, and secular Jewish thought, in general, which is at the heart of the "non-humanist humanism" he argued for in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism.


Among Edward Said's last works is the text of a lecture he delivered at the invitation of the Freud Museum in London on the topic of "Freud and the Non-European." (1) In many ways, the lecture, conforms to the basic contours of the Saidian oeuvre. A text by a major European thinker, Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939) is brought to bear on a real-world problem that remains unresolved--namely, the essentializing notions of national identity at work in Israel that exclude historical others, most especially the Palestinians. Said reads Freud's Moses as a work in the "late style"--in conformity with his wider critical interests that bridge the discussion between literature and music--and as a powerful, unsettling meditation on psychological identity. The most biting criticism of Israeli policies that Said draws from Freud's text is conveniently summarized in the following statement:

   Quite differently from the spirit of Freud's deliberately
   provocative reminders that Judaism's founder was a non-Jew,
   and that Judaism begins in the realm of Egyptian,
   non-Jewish monotheism, Israeli legislation countervenes,
   represses, and even cancels Freud's carefully maintained
   opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish
   background. The complex layers of the past, so to speak,
   have been eliminated by official Israel. So--as I read him
   in the setting of Israel's ideologically conscious policies--Freud,
   by contrast, had left considerable room to
   accommodate Judaism's non-Jewish antecedents and
   contemporaries. That is to say: in excavating the archaeology
   of Jewish identity, Freud insisted that it did not
   begin with itself but, rather, with other identities
   (Egyptian and Arabian) which his demonstration in
   Moses and Monotheism goes a great distance to discover
   and thus restore to scrutiny. (44)

Said's lecture ends by characterizing Freud as representative of a line of modern thought traced by Isaac Deutscher through the "non-Jewish Jews" Spinoza, Marx, Heine, and Freud that stresses a dialectical relationship with reality, not a static one, and a relativistic view of human values that still upholds the basic solidarity of humanity as a whole. (2)

In the final paragraphs, Freud emerges as a kind of cosmopolitan hero, one who was able to contemplate the scary notion that

   identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone;
   it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical
   originary break or flaw which will not be repressed,
   because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside
   the identity inside which so many have stood, and
   suffered--and later, perhaps, even triumphed. (54)

This view, Said argues, speaks to us still through its insistence that identity be thought of as "a troubling, disabling, destabilizing secular wound" (54) instead of as a fictional foundation that excludes historical others. In his closing words, Said articulates the hope that acknowledging this secular wound would be a different kind of foundation for a bi-national state "in which Israel and Palestine are parts, rather than antagonists of each other's history and underlying reality" (55). …

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