Between History and Identity: Freud and the Non-European | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2018

An Anniversary Tribute to Professor Edward Said (1 Nov. 1935 - 25 Sept. 2003)

Between History and Identity: Freud and the Non-European

Quite differently from the spirit of Freud's deliberately provocative reminders that Judaism's founder was a non-Jew, and that Judaism beginsin the realm of Egyption, non-Jewish monotheism, Israeli legislation countervenes, represses, and even cancels Freud's carefully maintained opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background. (Said, 66)

Edward W. Said – former Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University – is regarded by many as one of the most formidable cultural critics and public intellectuals of our time. Said has also been a forthright spokesman of human rights and the most eloquent defender of Palestinians and their right to self-determination. This fearless and distinguished Professor's intellectual journeys are preoccupied with an impassioned quest to explore and offer alternative readings of texts and histories. With Freud and the Non-European, which contains his lecture on the same title delivered at the Freud Museum of London in 2002, Said re-investigates into the contemporary discourses of history and identity. By examining Freud's monumental work Moses and Monotheism (1939), Said delves deep into the existing practices of historiography and shows how an adherence to the purist/solitarist approach to identity generates a reluctance to recognise an “other's being” as well as engenders feelings of aggressive nationalism and xenophobia.

In this essay Said substantiates the contrapuntal paradigm of reading a historic writer, that is, he sees the writer as an individual whose writings can travel across temporal, cultural, linguistic and ideological boundaries. Said reads Freud contrapuntally, by placing him in the contemporary cultural context and constructs conversations between the author's and our own times. He views him as a bundle of paradoxes, as an intellectual who has been unable to knit the divergent strands of his ideas: according to Said Freud had a Eurocentric view of culture; but, he was not unaware of the existence of other cultures and communities. He had rather his own observations about non-European “other,” most notably about Moses, and this betrays his awareness of the alternative modes of existence and identities other than that of the European. Said's contrapuntal approach to Freud or his rereading of the author's controversial text Moses and Monotheism, not only offers us Freud's reflections and meditations regarding the issue of identity, which he perceives with all its inherent ironies and limits, but also provides an alternative paradigm of reading history.

In Moses and Monotheism, Freud explores his own relationship with his ancient faith through the history and identity of its founder Moses, who Freud assumes, was an Egyptian, a non-European, and therefore an outsider to the people who adopted him as their leader – people who became the Jews after Moses embraced and created them as his people. In excavating the archaeology of Jewish identity, Freud comes up with this conclusion that the founder of Jewish identity or modern Judaism is a non-European Egyptian. Freud's assumption regarding Moses' roots being entrenched in its non-European Egyptian origins underscores the fact that Jewish identity is not made of itself alone, rather it is informed by the presence and the interplay of other identities, Egyptian and Arabian. Freud's assumptions regarding the core of Moses' identity, his troubled and unresolved relationship with his Jewishness presents penetrating insights into the idea of identity itself: according to Freud, identity cannot be viewed through a monochromatic lens, as no neat categorisation of self is possible; identity cannot be defined by a singular parameter, as it is not a homogeneous entity. Freud refused to acknowledge a singular, one-dimensional notion of identity. He refused to reduce identity to some of the “nationalist or religious herds in which so many people want so desperately to run” (53). Freud was unable to harmonise the discordant voices of his own self; his partial, fragmented and unorthodox relationship with his roots provides a model for identity in the contemporary world, that is, it encourages us to notice its “irremediably diasporic, unhoused character” (53) and cosmopolitan essence. Freud's paradigm of identity also dismantles the singularist approach or 'purist' myths surrounding the notion of a unique identity, which aims at erecting divisionary walls among cultures, communities and individuals.

By appropriating Freud's ideas regarding the non-Jewish background of Jewish identity, Said shows how Israeli legislation took great pains to repress Freud (66) as well as to undermine the history of Palestine. The intricate and complex layers of past, the legacy of non-Jewish and non-European avatars of Jewish identity have been carefully eliminated by Israel. Moreover, Israel has refused to acknowledge and address the founding and the later history of the state of Israel, and the turmoil which its creation and existence have brought to the lives of Palestinians.

The official establishment of Israel in the land of historical Palestine, in the years after 1948 (already given a mandate by the Balfour Declaration of 1917), Said argues, is the result of European anti-Semitism. Europe could not carve out a European territory for the victims of the Holocaust, rather it held the Jews at bay and gave a political mandate to establish their state in a non-European territory. In the wake of decolonisation Israel emerged as an incorrigible colonial state, using military means and applying brutal force for the occupation of territories that belonged to the natives, and replicated similar schemas of anti-Semitism Europe engineered: the establishment of official Israel and the consolidation of Jewish identity took very specific “legal and political positions effectively to seal off that identity” (43) from the presence of anything that is native and non-Jewish. Defining itself as a state of and for the Jewish people, Israel has not only undermined the history of an ancient land, which is conceived as a conglomeration of multiracial population of divergent peoples, but has allowed “exclusive immigration and land-owning rights” (43) for the Jews. As a result of this, a Jew who does not inherit any birth rights to Israel, can come and settle there if s/he wishes. As far as the Palestinians are concerned their “rights to land” are made null and void, and “right to return” exists as a viable reality for the “Jews only”.

Against the backdrop of post-1948 Israeli occupation of Palestine and the unleashing of the mad frenzy of racial as well as religious hatred that led to the resurgence of “myopic nationalism” and ethnocide, where victims turn into victimisers, Israel experienced a desperate need to formulate and articulate a historical narrative that will not only consolidate Jewish-Israeli identity, but will also validate their return to their ancestral homeland (Jerusalem) and legitimise the establishment of the state of Israel. In the context of post-1948 Israel the science of archaeology was summoned to substantiate the notion of a “nascent national” ideology, an ideology that refuses to recognise the presence of Palestinians as well as the traces of other civilisations, emphasising on the concept of a cohesive national Jewish identity, and seeks to camouflage a sinister systematic project of land-grabbing by manufacturing archaeological particulars, for example, dispersed remnants of tablets, tombs and masonry. The nationalist thesis of Israel appropriates the discourse of archaeology in such a way where it turns an “intermittent and dispersed Jewish presence of scattered ruins and buried fragments into a dynastic continuity” (48). Thus history is adorned with fabrications, underneath which the skeletons bear the silenced stories of non-Israelite, non-Jewish histories.

To conclude: Said's Freud and the Non-European attempts to challenge the dominant nationalist historiographies that construe the illegal Israeli occupation as a linear narrative. His narrative points finger at the “manipulative silences,” and stresses the need to break away from the prevailing parameters of historiography. For Said, the investigation into history is not meant to be a search for the “desired narrative,” rather it should be the search for “truth.” Said questions the status-quos, the stereotypical notions/received ideas about individuals and collectives, and refuses to remain mere spectators of cruel, unjust operations of institutions. Said's is a humanist and philosophical standpoint that acknowledges the right to existence for contending – or to use his phrase – contrapuntal histories, that celebrates the existence of plural perspectives. And this consciousness of contrapuntality enables Said to envision the possibility of a bi-national state; a state which will be premised upon democratic principles and equal rights; and which will ensure the sovereignty of both the Palestinians and Israelites, and the environment of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence.

With the unrest now prevailing in West Bank and Gaza, the world has witnessed not only the perils/debris of a flawed peace project and ceasefire in Palestine, but has encountered the demolition of basic human rights, the tragic consequences of communal conflicts, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and rape. Against such barbarism and primitivism, such mindless orchestration of mass killing and frenzied dance of “ignorant armies,” a Saidian paradigm of an equitable existence for people and communities having divergent ways of living and thinking, will lead us towards re-envisioning a more empathic universe. 

Natasha Afrin is Lecturer of the Institute of English and Other Languages at Rajshahi University.

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