Sigmund Freud – “The Return of Totemism in Early Childhood,” from Totem and Taboo (1913)

Published in Imago just before the war, the collection of four essays entitled “Totem and Taboo” attempts to locate the point at which human civilization emerges from the animal kingdom. The final installment, “The Return of Totemism in Childhood” is the most boldly speculative: it links the the universal neuroses of the Oedipal complex to the two principle ordinances of totemism: “not kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with a woman of the same totem,” coincide with “the two crime of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, as well as with the two primal wishes of children, the insufficient repression or reawakening of which form the nucleus of perhaps every psychoneurosis” (495). Be this is jumping ahead.

Freud points out that children have no problem treating animals as equals, and takes this as a paradigm for primitive man. Children associate animals im later life with the father–a fear of the father gets displaced onto animals. The sacrificial meal, then, involves the ritualistic slaughter of the totem animal (substitute for the father):

Everywhere a sacrifice involves a feast and a fest cannot be celebrated with a sacrifice. The sacrificial feast was an occasion on which individuals rose joyously above their own interests and stressed the mutual dependence existing between one another and their god. (496)

Crucially, the slaughter of a totem animal by an individual was not tolerated–“the whole clan must share the responsibility of the deed” (497). In this way, “the bond is nothing else than the life of the sacrificial animal, which resides in the flesh and blood and distributed among all participants in the sacrificial meal” (498).

The renewal of this bond–it’s materiality makes repetition necessary–is festival: “a permitted, or rather obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition” (499). The festive feelings follow from the taking in of “the sacred life of which the substance of the totem is the vehicle” (500). But this momentary disorder is only the means to the ordering of civilization as such:

The totem meal, perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things–of social organization, or moral restrictions and of religion.(501)

Civilization emerges from a an act of substitution and violence, which leads to the production of a symbolic regime. The guilt of the primal act of violence becomes inherent in all religion, and morality is rooted in the penance demanded by this sense of guilt. Throughout history, representations of the killing of animals represent both the death of the father as totemic animal and his elevation to the sacred, which marks his greatest triumph (506).

The final pages deal more generally with Freud’s notion of a “collective mind,” a necessary concept for tracking the historical development psychic states. This grounds his insistence on the “reality” of psychical states that are never “factual.” “We must avoid,” he writes, “a contempt for what is merely thought or wished” (513). For neurotics, thinking becomes a substitute for doing. But in primitive man, Freud believes, thought passes directly into action. And that is why, he famously writes, quoting Goethe, “in the beginning was the Deed.”



One response to “Sigmund Freud – “The Return of Totemism in Early Childhood,” from Totem and Taboo (1913)

  1. Pingback: Jung – Red Book « Freud Jailbreak Blog

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