Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The 'Uncanny', the Sacred and the Narcissism of Culture: The Development of the Ego and the Progress of Civilization1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The 'Uncanny', the Sacred and the Narcissism of Culture: The Development of the Ego and the Progress of Civilization1

Article excerpt

The report by a member of the Brazilian parliament that the rejection of physical deformity is natural and instinctive, and the Muslim reaction to the publication in the Western press of cartoons considered to be offensive to their religion, serve as an introduction to the examination of conflicts in human relations. The two episodes may be classified as representing the sense of the 'uncanny', attributed by Freud to the narcissism that remained from primitive cultures, in which the shadow cast by the body and the mirrored reflection of the latter probably generated the idea of soul-which would be the narcissistic phenomenon causing the illusion of immortality. The presence of this illusion as a support for the beliefs of present-day civilized peoples makes clear the inopportune influence of primitive mental states in areas where more developed ones should prevail. The persistence of the omnipotent thinking derived from these states provides the possibility of drawing a parallel between the development of the ego-evolution from narcissism to object relation-and the progress of civilization. In this context, the majority of social conflicts can be attributed to the deficient object relation resulting from the strength of primary narcissism, which generates a tendency to reject that which is different and to facilitate the emergence of destructive aggressiveness. The progress of civilization would then occur by means of a development of the ego compatible with object relations that lead to a drastic reduction in destructiveness.

Keywords: primary narcissism, omnipotence, soul, religion, secondary narcissism, object relation, destructiveness, taming of the instinct, pacifism

The highest mark of culture is the ability to live in peace with persons who are different from ourselves.

(Louis Fischer, 1949, p. 227)


According to Freud, the interest he had fostered for culture during his youth was rekindled, after the detour of a whole life dedicated to clinical practice, when he established that human history was only a reflection, on a larger scale, of that which psychoanalysis studies in the individual (1925, p. 72). Thus, an analogy between the development of the ego and the progress of civilization seems to be a timely homage to Freud, whose 150th anniversary fell in 2006. To introduce the subject, I examine two recent events-one national and one international-that have deserved great attention by the media. The first event is a report, by a Brazilian parliamentary committee member, against a bill that proposed the criminalization of discriminatory behaviour against people with physical deformities.2 The second is the violent reaction, in many Islamic countries, against the publication in a Danish newspaper of a supposedly offensive cartoon featuring Muhammad.

In the Brazilian case, several entities advocating the rights of minorities protested strongly against the legislative report, which said, 'The public display of sores and deformities provokes revulsion in the spirit of others, a natural rejection of what is misshapen and repugnant ... Aversion to illness is instinctive in human beings.'3 The wave of media protest finally resulted in public retraction and a formal apology by the spokesman.

This act of contrition, however, does not annul the inner conviction behind the issuing of such an adamant judgment, which clearly presupposed the approval of the majority. Observation of daily life seems to back up this assumption-demonstrations of rejection not only of people with physical deformities, but also of all that is different, are commonplace. That is why the feeling of revulsion was deemed instinctive, even though it is merely an emotional result of repressed impulses that arise in consciousness under disguise, much as the hysteric aversion to certain objects and animals, or the phobic and obsessive avoidance of certain anxiety-producing situations.

Regarding the international event, the reprisal that has taken several lives mirrors a conflict of civilizations that is again connected to unconscious factors, as I demonstrate later. …

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