Magazine article The Spectator

A New Take on Moses

Magazine article The Spectator

A New Take on Moses

Article excerpt

FREUD AND THE NON-EUROPEAN by Edward W. Said Verso, in association with the Freud Museum, L13, pp. 84, ISBN 1859845002

Polemicists find their weapons where they can. Edward Said, that learned and passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, has turned to Freud and enlisted one of his books to attack what he sees as the rewriting of Jewish history by modern Israel to suit itself.

Freud is always there, waiting to be reinterpreted. The book in question is Moses and Monotheism, the last of his works to be published in his lifetime. Completed in London in 1938, after Freud fled Vienna and the Nazis, it embodies a long preoccupation with Moses and the origin of the Jews. Freud was a nonreligious Jew, both curious and equivocal about 'Jewishness'. When he was 75 he concluded that `in a very hidden corner' of his soul he was 'a fanatical Jew'. He fantasised about himself as a Moses-figure. Moses and Monotheism was an attempt to lay that ghost.

Said takes comfort in the book's speculations about who the Jews are and, especially, about who their founding father was. Moses, according to Freud, was an Egyptian priest of noble birth, who persuaded the Semitic slaves whom he led from captivity to believe in a single-person deity, abstract and highly moral. Freud's story was, not surprisingly, a psychoanalytic one. Later on, he explained, the converts murdered Moses (thus making the Jews neurotically guilty for ever). They also abandoned monotheism.

The book has a lot more of such stuff. Other tribes and different gods, among them the `volcano god' Yahweh, later Jehovah, are stitched into the narrative. Crucially, Freud has a second priestly figure appear on the scene, a sort of Moses II, in whom folk-memories of Moses I and his monotheism are reborn. Thus, in an agonising process lasting centuries, the Jews.

This account, knocking Moses off his traditional pedestal, was not warmly received in 1939, when the concentration camps were taking shape. Jewish scholars bombarded him. `You old nitwit,' wrote an anonymous correspondent in Boston. But Freud clung to his theory in the few months he had left to live.

The bare bone of Said's argument is that Freud saw Jewish identity, beginning as he suggested with the Egyptian Moses, as having a non-Jewish, non-European dimension now forgotten. …

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