Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Throwing a pebble: Freud, Edward Said and the Question of Palestine

By Salimullah Khan*, Republished from NewAge, October 3, 2007

IN THIS essay I propose to review a little book by the late Edward Said. But before I enter the book itself I think it is proper that a reviewer narrate it, even if briefly, how the book came to be written in the first place. In this case it came in a very strange manner indeed. At the time of writing the author was terminally ill, having been diagnosed nearly a decade ago with an incurable variety of leukaemia. And, as everyone knows, the world-famous author passed away not too long afterwards, in September 2003.

The book at hand may be considered a high point of the good old Said’s lifework, a work that embodies his reconciliatory views on the possibility of a just peace in Palestine, containing a handy instance of the Palestinian freedom fighter’s ‘brilliant, tireless, and courageous’ advocacy of the case for a moderate, secular and democratic bi-national state in post-colonial Palestine. Said, whom his political denigrators were wont to caricature as the ‘Professor of Terror,’ provides new evidence, if evidence were needed, to reaffirm the fact that he disapproved of political violence.

Freud, Zionism and Vienna

Edward W Said, as is well known, earned his worldwide fame as the author of Orientalism, a topical study of the foundations of European imperialism in the Middle East ever since Franco-Britannic conquests there in the late 18th century, illuminating, among other things, especially the politics of literary representation.

Said has not been just a rebel without a cause. The justice of his cause, known as the question of Palestine, has been widely, if not universally, appreciated around the world. In 1977 Said was elected to the Palestinian National Council, where he remained until 1991, when he resigned. The Question of Palestine, his contribution to the cause of the liberation of Palestine, includes the topic of ‘the refusal to recognise another’s being.’

Ever since Said, sympathetic scholars around the globe took up his cause in earnest and had given birth to a new field of sorts called by the name ‘Postcolonial Studies’. Said had written among other things about Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who after having lived a rather long life in Vienna, Austria, moved to London shortly before his death there in 1939.

In late July 2000 the Freud Institute and Museum in Vienna, Austria, invited Edward Said to deliver the annual Freud Lecture there in May 2001. Said promptly accepted the invitation having been, to put it in his own words, ‘for many years a great admirer of his work and life’ (Said, From Oslo, p.54). Freud, by the way a European Jew par excellence, was opposed to the movement for founding an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine but, as Edward Said himself notes, ‘later modified his view when Nazi persecution of European Jews made a Jewish state seem like a possible solution to widespread and lethal anti-Semitism.’ But Freud could never reconcile himself with this as an ultimate solution to the Jewish question in Europe. Freud remained, as Said claims, at best ambivalent vis-à-vis Zionism.

On August 21, the same year, the Vienna Freud Institute’s Board confirmed the invitation to Said. The topic Said proposed for his lecture was ‘Freud and the Non-European’ where he planned to argue that ‘although Freud’s work was for and about Europe, his interest in ancient civilisations like those of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Africa was an indication of the universalism of his vision and the humane scope of his work.’ Moreover, according to Said, Freud’s thought deserved to be appreciated ‘for its antiprovincialism, quite unlike that of his contemporaries, who denigrated non-European cultures as lesser or inferior’ (Said, From Oslo, p.54).

Then, on February 8, 2001, the institute cancelled the invitation. The excuse given was rather a funny one. The previous July, that is actually sometime before the original Vienna invitation by the Freud people was extended to the Palestinian professor, a little incident did occur in Southern Lebanon. Said was at the moment visiting southern Lebanon, actually a spot on the border there with Israel.

Let us get it from the horse’s own mouth. In an essay titled ‘Freud, Zionism, and Vienna,’ Said wrote:
In late June and early July 2000, I made a personal family visit to Lebanon, where I also gave two public lectures. Like most Arabs, my family and I were very interested to visit South Lebanon to see the recently evacuated ‘security zone’ militarily occupied by Israel for twenty-two years, from which troops of the Jewish state were unceremoniously expelled by the Lebanese resistance. Our visit took place on July 3, during which daylong excursion we spent time in the notorious Khiam prison, built by the Israelis in 1987, in which eight thousand people were tortured and detained in dreadful, bestial conditions. Right after that we drove to the border post, also abandoned by Israeli troops, now a deserted area except for Lebanese visitors who come there in large numbers to throw stones of celebration across the still heavily fortified border. No Israelis, neither military, nor civilian, were in sight (Said, From Oslo, p.52).

During their ten-minute stop, says Said in continuing his narrative, he was photographed there without his knowledge ‘pitching a tiny pebble in competition with some of the younger men present,’ none of whom, of course, had any particular target in sight. The area was empty for miles and miles. What happened later is pure irony, adding grist to the Zionist propaganda mill.

Two days later [writes Edward W Said] my pictures appeared in newspapers in Israel and all over the West. I was described as a rock-throwing terrorist, a man of violence, and so on and so on, in the familiar chorus of defamation and falsehood known to anyone who has incurred the hostility of Zionist propaganda (Said, From Oslo, p.52).

Said did so much as throw a tiny pebble as a purely symbolic gesture. The gesture must have been more than obvious to any but the jaundiced, as there was no Israeli personnel anywhere around, that no physical harm was threatened to anyone. ‘Israeli propaganda, aided and abetted by a corrupt western media’ chose to focus on a harmless gesture of Said’s to monstrously absurd proportions and suggested that Said was ‘a violent fanatic interested in killing Jews.’ More bizarre still, a whole orchestrated campaign was mounted to try getting him dismissed from Columbia, the university where the man taught for, by then, thirty-eight years. As a matter of fact, it was this campaign that killed the Vienna invitation to Said.

The Freud Institute’s chairman, a certain sociologist Schülein by name, said that this little incident (as well as his criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory) was the reason behind their cancellation of the invitation. It might offend, Schülein added, Viennese Jewish sensitivities in the context of Jörg Haider’s presence, the Holocaust, and the history of Austrian anti-Semitism. Once upon a time the Nazis and the majority of the Austrian people hounded Freud out of Vienna, Edward Said reminded the world at the time. ‘Today,’ he added, ‘those same paragons of courage and intellectual principle ban a Palestinian from lecturing (Said, From Oslo, p.55).’

Immediately after Vienna cancelled his invitation, the London Freud Museum invited Edward Said to deliver the lecture he was asked to give in Vienna, which he duly did. This, in brief, is the story of Edward Said’s little book Freud and the Non-European.

Freud and the Non-European

Edward Said builds his argument on two simple facts about Sigmund Freud, who not unlike Spinoza, Heine, and Marx before him, has sometimes been referred to as a ‘non-Jewish Jew.’ According to Issac Deutscher, himself a formidable, non-conformist Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, such non-Jewish Jews were first persecuted and excommunicated by their own communities. One refers to Freud’s belief that modern Judaism and the Jews were mainly to be thought of as Europeans, or at least belonging to Europe rather than Asia or Africa. Secondly, Freud never discounted or played down the fact that Moses, founder of Judaism, was an Egyptian, a non-European that is.

Incidentally, we owe a couple of critical observations on Moses to Freud. First, the monotheism that Moses introduced to the Jewish people was not of Jewish origin; it was something borrowed from old Egyptian folk religion. Secondly, the prophet Moses himself was put to violent death by his own Jewish folks.

Two questions must follow then. First, what has Freud’s take on Europe been in the face of the European’s takeover of the non-European’s lands and histories in modern times? ‘Certainly,’ according to Said, ‘Freud had no thought of Europe as the malevolent colonizing power described a few decades later by Fanon and the critics of Eurocentrism.’ And, added Said, Freud had also ‘no idea at all of what would happen after 1948, when Palestinians gradually came to see that the people who arrived from abroad to take and settle on their land just like the French who came to Algeria: Europeans who had superior title to the land over the non-European natives’ (Said, Freud, p.51). The only exception Said would grant is provided by a prophetic comment of Freud’s to the effect that giving undue importance to Jewish monuments would anger the Palestinian Arabs.

Freud, Said admits, admired the Zionist hero Theodore Herzl but most of the time he hesitated – indeed equivocated – so far as Zionism itself was concerned. Freud’s meditations and insistence on the non-European from a Jewish point of view provide, Said argues, ‘an admirable sketch of what it entails, by way of refusing to resolve identity into some of the nationalist or religious herds in which so many people want so desperately to run.’ ‘More bold,’ as Said writes, ‘is Freud’s profound exemplification of the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity – for him, this was the Jewish identity – there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one and only one, Identity (Said, Freud, p.53-54).’

The founder of Jewish identity was himself a non-European Egyptian. This fact, for Freud, constituted a symbol of those limits. ‘In other words, identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and there always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered – and later, perhaps, even triumphed (Said, Freud, p.54).’

The strength of this thought, as Said suggests, is that it can be articulated in and speak to other besieged identities as well, ‘not through dispensing palliatives such as tolerance and compassion but, rather, by attending to it as a troubling, disabling, destabilizing secular wound –the essence of the cosmopolitan, from which there can be no recovery, no state of resolved or Stoic calm, and no utopian reconciliation even within itself’ (Said, Freud, p.54).

Said takes this wound of Freud’s as only an open-ended historical possibility. Thus he allows himself this question: Can it ever inspire an alternative politics in Palestine, of all places on earth?

Can it ever become the not-so-precarious foundation in the land of the Jews and Palestinians of a bi-national state in which Israel or Palestine are parts, rather than antagonists of each other’s history and underlying reality?

Edward Said, who aspired to overcome the Gramscian antinomy, i.e. pessimism of intellect and optimism of will, by a variety of his own optimism produced in the form of Palestinian resistance to the European settler colonialism in their land, in the end declares that he too is a believer, ‘because Freud’s unresolved sense of identity is so fruitful an example, as because the condition he takes such pains to elucidate is actually more general in the non-European world than he suspected’ (Said, Freud, p.55).

Tales of pebbles and suicide bombs

Edward Said was, besides much else, a fine pianist and significantly a music critic too. There has not, however, been much psychoanalytic whiff blowing in the revolutionary works of Edward Said. I happen, nonetheless, to believe that he made no lesser than a fine contribution to the ethics of psychoanalysis, for that matter.

What has been much maligned as Palestinian terrorism has already been presented in a psychoanalytic perspective in Said’s work, which makes his references to the founder of psychoanalysis all the more resonant and apposite. As Christopher Bollas who introduced Said in London in 2001 has put it, Said’s work invites us to consider effects of what is known in psychoanalysis as ‘negative hallucination,’ of not seeing the existence of an object or another.

‘Thus in examining the structure of oppression,’ Bollas argues, ‘we must not only look at what the oppressors project into the oppressed (for example, Israeli violence projected into the Palestinian people), but we must also take into account a refusal to recognize the actual existence of this other (in this case Israel’s reluctance to recognize the existence of the Palestinians).’ ‘The oppressed exists,’ Bollas continues, ‘in this respect, to contain unwanted destructiveness in the oppressor who insists at the same time that the oppressed be like a fecal entity that is so odious that it cannot be recognized, except if and when it is out of sight, and finally eliminated (Bollas 2004: 5-6).’

Professor Said, with a little pebble in hand, is no doubt a ‘stone-throwing Palestinian,’ at least in the eyes of ‘Israeli propaganda and a corrupt western media.’ But what does a stone signify in a world riddled with symbols of sand, where it is not even a short walk from a bridal-bed to a blood bath? Let me conclude in agreement with Christopher Bollas:

The stone throwing Palestinian is symbolically returning that Israeli violence that has used stones to build the settlements. The horror of the suicide bomber returns the violence of Israeli guns, tanks and warplanes (Bollas 2004: 6).

Is the aim of such resistance not to overcome Israel? No, it cannot be, argues Bollas. ‘It is to return Israel to itself, for better or for worse. Palestinian violence seeks to maintain sanity for its people through the insistence that the self exists even as the oppressor seek to deny it, something of that, of course, the Jewish people know only too well through the catastrophe that was the Holocaust.’

It is all the more ironical that the Vienna people could not bear it to hear for themselves their own tale retold just ‘in another scene.’ I do not mean London as Jacqueline Rose does but Palestine itself, which in Freud’s own parlance, is a repetition, or simply ‘an other scene’ of the fateful unconscious.

*Salimullah Khan teaches at Stamford University, Dhaka, Bangladesh


October 3, 2007 - Posted by | Cultural Studies, Essay, Salimullah Khan

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