ABORIGINAL POPULATIONS IN THE MIND

By Celia Brickman.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 293 pp., $59.50.


This book is about Freud and the heart of darkness. Brickman takes
her title from Freud’s essay, “The Unconscious” (1915): “The content
of the Ucs. may be compared to an aboriginal population in the mind”
(p. 195). Six years before he wrote that, a fellow middle European wrote,
“The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of
the sails, and was at rest [in the estuary of the Thames]. . . . ‘and this
also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the
earth’” (pp. 45, 48). Then, in narrating Heart of Darkness, Conrad (1902)
goes on to tell a very dark story indeed. The idea that in Roman times
the Thames was as dark as the Congo seems to imply that the darkness
is due to the primitivity of the inhabitants, but in Marlow’s account it
is the Romans on the Thames and the Belgians on the Congo who are
the real savages. A thin veneer of altruism, the supposed mission to
enlighten the aborigines, was the excuse for looting, exploitation, and
mass murder on a grand scale.
Hochschild (1999) has shown that though the book has been re-
garded as a fictional metaphor for all kinds of darkness of the heart,
Conrad intended it as an exposé of genocide and that “whatever rich
levels of meaning the book has as literature . . . [it is] a precise and
detailed description of the actual facts of the case” (p. 143). There
were real versions of Kurtz with real collections of severed heads dec-
orating their gardens. Why was Kurtz such a savage? Did he go native
and become like the primitive Africans around him? Conrad’s de-
scriptions of the Africans are not complimentary, and though he cer-
tainly was appalled by Belgian colonialism he remained devoted to the
British version.
In her study, Brickman shows the origins of the notion of the primi-
tive in the colonial exploits of the various models for Kurtz, in their
reports to the people back home in Europe, and in the theorizing of the
early anthropologists, who worked from such accounts and not from
their own fieldwork. From a postcolonialist perspective it seems clear
that the savagery of the Europeans was based not on the savagery of
the colonized but on the idea that aborigines were savage. Christian
doctrine beginning with the crusades held that it was the responsibil-
ity of the Pope, and through him his princes, to convert barbarians,
by force if necessary. Such conversion was one of Columbus’s respon-
sibilities. He liked the people he encountered, f inding them trusting,
friendly, and helpful, but this very guilelessness was taken as a sign
of their lack of civilization and a reason to subjugate them. They fought
back ferociously, and that proved they were savage.
This sequence took place around the world. The unfamiliarity of
the peoples European explorers encountered was taken as a sign that
they were not quite human; that they were primitive and in need of
improvement, which required subjugation or, failing that, extermina-
tion. Their resistance and counterattacks were seen as signs of sav-
agery. Our tendency is to describe Kurtz and other genocidal maniacs
of the past and present as being as primitive as the primitives. But what
can the word primitive mean if the whole notion of primitivity is derived
from a vicious circle of dehumanizing others? Brickman points out to
us in this thorough, original, and scholarly work that we are more or
less stuck with a key term of psychoanalysis that comes from nothing
more substantial than the rationalizations of international villains.
This book traces the origins and fate of Freud’s idea of the primi-
tive. He read widely in the anthropology of his time, took it very
seriously as science, and incorporated it at a basic level of his own
theorizing. Early anthropology was shaped by three ideas that Freud
accepted as foundational: evolution, the inheritance of acquired charac-
teristics, and the recapitulation of phylogeny by ontogeny. The author-
ities on whom Freud relied were attempting to demonstrate the unitary
evolution of culture as if there were a universal series of stages of
cultural development culminating in its most evolved form: European
patriarchy. The many cultures of the other continents were seen either
as basically identical or as various stages of evolution, survivors into
the present of the early history of European culture itself (“this also
has been one of the dark places of the earth”). The data for these for-
mulations were haphazardly collected or invented and incorporated into
theory by armchair anthropologists who believed what Kurtz told them.
The developmental scheme they invented did not just consist of the
gradual modification of custom, but was thought to involve the physi-
cal evolution of the brain. Lamarckian theory held that adaptations in
one generation were passed on genetically, to future generations, and
that idea seemed to Freud to offer the opportunity of being an archae-
ologist of the mind. By learning what complexes lay in the depths of
the unconscious, he could learn the details of our psychological evolu-
tion. I think that most of us now read Totem and Taboo (Freud 1912–
1913) as poetry if we read it at all, but Freud took it very seriously as
a discovery of the facts of personal and social evolution. Brickman
emphasizes that aside from the project being based on long discredited
science, another difficulty is that the Lamarckian idea expressed the
racist idea that non-Europeans, especially those with dark skins, hadn’t
evolved enough to be capable of being civilized.
She points out that Jews in f in-de-siécle Vienna were seen by
many of their fellow citizens as being just such uncivilized, uncivi-
lizable specimens. It was widely believed that Jews, like other people
with skins darker than the Aryans’, had a characteristic bad smell.
Brickman contends more or less convincingly that Freud’s theorizing
worked both to consolidate his position as an evolved white man
and also to attack the anti-Semites. In the second chapter of Group
Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud (1921) quotes from what
he calls “LeBon’s deservedly famous work Psychologie des foules”
(1896). LeBon was a reactionary bigot who wrote about groups from
the point of view of a civilized man looking disdainfully at the primi-
tive people who made up the mob—i.e., those who were agitating for
change in political and economic relations. Freud turned the notion
of the primitivity of groups back against reactionary anti-Semites such
as the followers of the Viennese mayor, Otto Lüger. It was not the
Jews who were primitive but their enemies. The notion of primitivity
not only remains unchallenged but is today even more deeply incorpo-
rated in psychoanalytic theory. Brickman’s scholarship traces the
notion that primitive people are easily enthralled by a commanding
leader, locating it in many analytic prejudices, especially sexist ones.
Incidentally, in my years of living and working with Native Americans,
an allegedly primitive lot, I found them to be generally more resistant
than many Americans to demagogic appeals. But Brickman presents
another idea of Freud’s reaction to anti-Semitism that is less con-
vincing. Anti-Semites believed that circumcision was a sign of the
homosexuality or femininity of Jewish men. She suggests that that idea
led to Freud’s having to counteract and disguise circumcision fear as
castration anxiety.
Brickman contends that even if Freud’s erroneous ideas of cultural
history have been abandoned, another part of a questionable theoretical
legacy remains. Since Freud thought that individual development
recapitulates racial development, the early stages of life are seen as
primitive, not just in the sense of occurring early in the individual’s
history but in the pejorative sense of resembling dangerous and despised
peoples and their ways. It is this point that makes Brickman’s work
more important than if it were merely a history of Freud’s thought
and the early development of psychoanalysis (its primitive stages, so
to speak). The prejudice cuts both ways. Childlike traits are inferior
to characteristics of adulthood, and individual characteristics that
resemble or are said to resemble those of primitive cultures are child-
like. A white man, especially an atheist scientist, becomes the standard
to be aspired to. Brickman, a woman with a Ph.D. in religion and the
human sciences, devotes careful and effective attention to the develop-
ment and persistence of psychoanalytic biases against religion and
women. Primitivity, Freud believed, implies the failure of a desirable
repudiation of the maternal, and so women are almost by definition
primitive; if they have repudiated the maternal, however, they are
considered perverted.
Freud saw religion as derived from the magic of early racial times,
and considered it the task of psychoanalysis to rescue the individual
from the authority of the past. These are prejudices that I ran up against
in myself in 1966, when I began my work in the Navajo Nation. It came
to me as second nature to assume that mental health required inde-
pendence and even separation from one’s family of childhood and
especially from the mother. Suddenly, I was among a matrilocal culture
in which for a woman moving away from home was abnormal, and both
genders lived in interdependence with a large group of close relatives.
I was forced to notice how well the system worked; and more painfully,
I felt I had lost rather than gained by being as independent as I was.
Besides losing something vital, I had been suffering from shame for
not having lost it thoroughly enough. The general Western idealization
of independence has been wholeheartedly adopted by most psycho-
analysts. My Navajo acculturation and my reading of Kohut (1971,
1977, 1984) helped to free me from my moralistic criticism of those
who need the good opinion and support of others.
Navajo religion is both simple in making the everyday world of
nature sacred, and elaborate in its cosmology and liturgy. I had never
lost the basic religious convictions of my childhood, but I was enough of
a convert to psychoanalysis to scorn religious practice. In my early Indian
years I recognized the benefits to the Navajos of their religious beliefs
and practices (Bergman 1971, 1973). To better understand the subject I
was often a participant observer in ceremonies. Then I realized I had be-
come simply a participant (Bergman 1974). I was not only deeply in-
volved religiously, but in the process I had been adopted into an extended
family of which three decades later I am still a part. I have benefited
personally from my acculturation, and I believe my work has benefited
by my escaping the very biases that Brickman’s book undermines.
She is more evenhanded in her account of Freud and the rest of us
analysts than I can summarize briefly. She recognizes that Freud both
valued and denigrated so-called primitive experience. He not only tried
to free us from what he thought primitive but also appreciated it. As
Auden (1976) wrote in his memorial to Freud:


But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer, but also
Because it needs our love. For with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
Us dumbly to ask them to follow;
They are exiles who long for the future
That lies in our power . . .


Brickman devotes considerable space to more recent psycho-
analytic developments, particularly along feminist and intersubjec-
tivist lines, that have corrected some of the bias invoked by the word
primitive. Nonetheless, the bias remains strong in many of us. I think
it is easy for us to be lulled into complacency about the correctness
of our point of view as scientists and lulled into believing that oppo-
sition, especially heated opposition from the other, is primitive. When
we do that, we resemble the colonialists who took the way the colonized
fought back as evidence of their being primitive.
Anderson (1999), a colleague I respect for her conscientious
thoughtfulness, but from whom I differ on some fundamental theo-
retical considerations, wrote an account of the pressure on the analyst
“toward enactment in terms of the threats that primitive, pre-thinking
states of mind exert on attempts to know and understand” (p. 504). The
case she reports is of a man who made “reasonable requests for
changes in schedule and other seemingly minor deviations of the
analytic frame”; after initially complying with “a few of these requests,”
Anderson concluded from dreams and associations that the patient
was seeing her “as debilitated and incapacitated and as being analyti-
cally inattentive to deeper concerns” (p. 504). She therefore stopped
complying, and the analysand became angry. The conflict between the
two seems to have been prolonged and bitter, and, though it had its ups
and downs, it was never resolved, at least by the time the paper was
written. Anderson provides an elegant, though to me unconvincing, dis-
cussion of the case as showing how primitive forces are revealed by
adherence to correct analytic technique. She may, of course, be right. I
wasn’t there, and she is a good observer, but I find it more plausible to
imagine that the analysand was right in thinking that there was no good
reason for a blanket refusal to change appointments. If earlier he saw
her as weak for granting requests, it seems to me that that perception
could have been analyzed rather than simply accepted. Anderson makes
the point that primitive forces oppose technique that she considers
good, but I think it may have been overly rigid. If we are convinced
that our technique is correct, especially if it provokes what we view as
primitive, we blind ourselves to the possibility that the other has a
good point; that requests were reasonable and their denial not. Even if
the analysand’s anger could somehow be shown to be disproportionate,
that would be a separate problem and would not prove that the request
was an attempt to undermine the analysis. Certainly all of us in our
work make our patients angry fairly often, and there is a great deal to
be learned from such interactions, especially if we are prepared to con-
sider that it is possible that we are the ones being unreasonable.
Columbus knew that aborigines were savages without rights to
ownership of their native land. We analysts are in danger of knowing
that our understanding of our relationship has a similar precedence
over the claims of our primitive patients. It seems to me that hope for
the future of psychoanalysis in particular, and perhaps of humanity in
general, lies with an awareness that most savagery results not from
primitivity on one side or the other, but from the opposing parties each
thinking that the other is not as fully human as they are.


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