Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

III. The Psychoanalysis of Demonization

In “A Seventeenth Century Demonological Neurosis” (1923), Freud declares:

The demonological theory of those dark times has won in the end against all the somatic views of the period of ‘exact’ science. The states of possession correspond to our neuroses, for the explanation of which we once more have recourse to psychical powers . . . We merely eliminate the projection of these mental entities into the external world which the middle ages carried out; instead, we regard them as having arisen in the patient’s internal life, where they have their abode.13

Here, in all its exquisite ambivalence, is quintessential Freud on the demonic: provocatively vindicating the “demonological theory” of “dark times” and portraying psychoanalytic categories as “psychical powers,” while saving rationalism by dismissing the “projection” of those powers into “the external life” and situating them instead in the “patient’s internal life” where those “powers” have their “abode.” The balance between demonization and anti-demonization in this passage turns in part on the coherence of the internal/external divide and with it the explanatory power of “projection.”

It turns out that Freud actually has two theories of demonization, in the sense of the generation of the demonic: one on the level of the object, the other of the subject. The first concerns the splitting of the father into “good” and “bad” incarnations; the other concerns the splitting of the self.14 In the first version, Freud argues that “God and the Devil were originally identical – were a single figure which was later split into two figures with opposite attributes.”15 Freud views this single figure as modeled on, or, perhaps, as an unendurable projection of, the human father. The psychic benefit gained by its splitting into two opposite personages is the management of the “ambivalence which governs the relation of the individual to his personal father.”16 In the second version, by contrast, Freud attributes the origin of the Devil to a splitting of the ego, in an attempt by the subject to safeguard its coherence against the threat of fragmentation by unruly desires: “the Devil is certainly nothing else than the personification of the repressed unconscious instinctual life.”17 In this version, the Devil is a crystallization of elements which the subject finds incompatible with a coherent self and which become dissociated from, and antagonistic to, that self. The Devil, the ultimate personification of the “Other Side,” thus emerges either as the “other (to the) father” or as the “other (to the) self”: alterity as the effect of the splitting of the same.

In either case, what are the consequences of the Freudian diagnosis? Of course, it probably depends on one’s general image of Freud – Freud the rationalist man of science, Freud the muse of Surrealism, the Freudian text as literature, “French Freud,” etc. Let’s take the rationalist Freud for a moment: from this perspective, the consequence of the recognition of ambivalence would seem to be something like a collapse of otherness into sameness. In this vein, Freud declares in Totem and Taboo, his approach enables him to “get behind the demons.”18 Otherness is resolved either into the sameness of a single subject in whom both sets of feelings reside or into the unity of a single object which was split in two. In either case, the goal, both the cognitive goal of the analyst and the therapeutic goal for the analysand, is integration and identity.

The implication of this approach for political debate would seem to be to get a demonizer to recognize his or her own ambivalence and thereby to trace the common source of both demonized and revered. In other words, to persuade the subject to acknowledge the Other as the I: universal human identity as the outcome of the demystification of demonization. This version of the Freudian thesis is a more sophisticated form of the unreflective demonization-of-demonization in political debate with which I began – and is just as unable to tarry with difference and otherness.

Nevertheless, there are paths other than those of universal homogeneity that lead away from the Freudian diagnosis of demonization. Freud himself proclaims in 1920 that his views had “from the very first been dualistic and today they are even more definitely dualistic than before”; this stance is at odds with any attempt to resolve difference into identity.19 A canny observer has suggested that, increasingly, and against the “the radically demythologizing milieu and intent of Freud’s psychoanalysis,” Freud elaborates a vision of underlying forces as “silent, invisible Movers that take the place of the prior idols that psychoanalytic theory has dispatched,” forces that “cannot be demythologized.”20

Whatever reading we might give to Freud’s own contradictions, it is from the non-identitarian strand in psychoanalysis that Julia Kristeva departs in calling for recognizing “the alien within” as the way to confront xenophobia.21 Kristeva proposed this approach as her response to the emergence in 1980s France of politically organized animus against mostly Muslim immigrants, as well as those perceived as “immigrants” regardless of their place of birth, a phenomenon that has only grown in the intervening generation. The recognition of the “alien within” is a radical alternative, at once psychoanalytic and political, to the French Jacobin tradition of a universalist ethics of “brotherhood.” Rather than seeking to recognize all human beings as the “same,” Kristeva urges us to recognize that the subject is not even identical to itself, that alterity inhabits each of us. The (racial, ethnic, gendered, etc.) Other is no more alien than the secret alterity within every person. In the terms I am proposing here, in which the demonic is the “Other Side” itself, we can see Kristeva as combining Freud’s two theories of demonization: affirming that the truth of the demonized object is the internally demonized subject and calling for the acceptance of universal alterity rather than integration and identity. Projection as a critique of demonization collapses with this challenge to the boundaries between the “internal” as the realm of the I and the “external” as the realm of the Other.

One may question, however, whether Kristeva’s call adequately responds to the phenomenology of demonization. If we take its terrors as seriously as its experience demands, then we may be skeptical that one can be talked out of it – whether through rationalist demythologization of absolute otherness or therapeutic exhortations to accept that otherness. The experience of the demonic – whether of the other as demon, or of oneself as the demonized-demonizer – is precisely that which cannot be tolerated, cannot be resolved. Sartre declares that one who has been “for the Other,” even one time, is “contaminated in his being for the rest of his days”; that which has been “alienated” cannot be “reconquered.” In the Sartrean experience of the “upsurge of the Other,” appear “certain determinations which I am without having chosen them … All this I am for the Other without hope of apprehending this meaning which I have on the outside and, a fortiori, of changing it.”22 Kristeva’s therapeutic advice is, in effect, to convert this alienation into something chosen – a classic psychological defense mechanism, the kind that threatens to be swept away by the very next “upsurge” of the Other, the very next experience of demonization (or of being the demonizer-demonized, which amounts to the same thing).23 One may, indeed, ask whether the alterity that can be thus embraced is truly Other, the intransigent Other signaled by the word “demonic” – and whether the political consequences may include limits or conditions on the acceptance of the cultural or religious Other.

Tarrying with the paralyzing dispossession that marks the persistently powerful experiences of demonization and counter-demonization requires a refusal to reduce or evade the intransigence of those experiences. But, before asking how one may tarry with the demonic, one may well ask, where may one do so?

13. Sigmund Freud, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis’, (1923), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. IX, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1954) [henceforth “SE“], 71.

14. Ana Maria Rizzuto, ‘Freud, God, the Devil and the Theory of Object Representation’, International Review of Psychoanalysis, 3:2 (1976), 168.

15. Freud, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis’, 85.

16. Freud, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis’, 85.

17. Sigmund Freud, ‘Character and Anal Erotism’, in SE, Vol. IX, 173. See generally Luisa de Urtubey, Freud et le diable (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983).

18. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913), in SE, Vol. XIII, 61.

19. Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920), in SE, Vol. XVIII, 53.

20. Bruce M. King, ‘Freud’s Empedocles: The Future of a Dualism’, in Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self, (ed.) Vanda Zajko and Ellen O’Gorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 24.

21. Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à Nous-Mêmes (Paris : Fayard 1988), 283-285.

22. Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, 568.

23. I would contend that this suggestion does a disservice to Kristeva’s own brilliant analysis of the irreducibility of the terrors of the demonic. See her Pouvoirs de l’horreur: un essai sur l’abjection (Paris: Seuil, 1980)

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