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THE UNCOMFORTABLE COUCH OF IDENTITY

FREUD AND THE NON-EUROPEAN By Edward W. Said, Verso, £ 13

Edward Said’s writings are nothing if not provocative and always full of new insight. In this book, he takes up a late work of Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, to open up Freud’s views on non-Europeans and also to use this text to launch a critique of some of the positions adopted by the state of Israel.

The choice of the text is important because it serves as a preview of Said’s latest preoccupation, the late styles of artists and intellectuals. Moses and Monotheism, according to Said, is a classic example of this particular style. He illustrates this — not surprisingly for those who are aware of Said’s abiding passion for Western classical music — with the late works of Beethoven, the late quartets, the last piano sonatas, the ninth symphony and the Missa Solemnis. In these works, like in Moses and Monotheism, the thrust is not towards an easy resolution or reconciliation but towards an avoidance of closure; these works remain unpolished gems, at times even episodic and fragmentary. Freud, Said suggests, wrote Moses and Monotheism as did Beethoven his last pieces — for himself. In Said’s words, “the intellectual trajectory conveyed by the late work is intransigence and a sort of irascible transgressiveness, as if the author was expected to settle down into a harmonious composure, as befits a person at the end of his life, but preferred instead to be difficult, and to bristle with all sorts of new ideas and provocations.”

Looking at Moses, the original hero of the Jews, Freud stressed Moses’s Egyptian identity and the fact that Moses’s ideas about a single God were derived from the Egyptian Pharaoh, “who is universally credited with the invention of monotheism”. Thus Freud was quite clear and adamant that Moses was an Egyptian and therefore different from the people who adopted him as a leader. People who became Jews were created by Moses as his people.

Freud’s relationship with Judaism was thus ambiguous. Occasionally, he was proud of his belonging, but at other times, disapproving of Zionism. But Freud was not willing to accept Jews as non-Europeans despite the origins of Moses. He saw the Jews as the remnants of a Mediterranean culture. “Could it be, perhaps”, Said asks somewhat speculatively, “that the shadow of anti-Semitism spreading so ominously over his world in the last decade of his life caused him protectively to huddle the Jews inside the sheltering realm of the European'”

Freud, according to Said, had mobilized the non-European past of the Jews to undermine any doctrinal attempt to put Jewish identity on a sound foundational basis. Freud attempted to open out Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background. The Jewish past has many complex layers, which official Israel eliminates.

This exposition or reading of Freud has important implications. Identity, especially besieged ones, can see their own identity “as a troubling, disabling, destabilizing secular wound”. The problem of identity is by nature irreconcilable, for- ever open, and like Beethoven and Freud’s late style, always episodic and deeply undetermined.

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