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Saturday, May 09, 2009

and the document was sweet in my mouth


Je le sais tellement que si monsieur le Comte en se mariant n'eût pas aboli ce droit honteux, jamais je ne t'eusse épousée dans ses domaines.


Hé bien! s'il l'a détruit, il s'en repent; et c'est de ta fiancée qu'il veut le racheter en secret aujourd'hui.

A nobleman renounces certain of his rights. Then he reasserts them, according to ancient documents which, he claims, gives him the right to the first night with the bride of his servants.

A man goes up a smoky mountain. He comes down with two stone tablets, upon which YHWH has, himself, written a pact – a covenant. The covenant, like the nobleman’s, makes requirements of YHWH’s servants that reach into the very depth of their private lives. The man is angered to see that the the people he left at the foot of the mountain are now dancing around an idol. This violates the first rule of the pact YHWH has made with his people - although since the people have not even seen the pact, one wonders how this covenant could be violated. The man dashes the stone tablets to the ground. And thus, he must return to YHWH to ask for the contract again. What is written on the stone tablets, exactly, is ambiguous, as the writer of Exodus and Deuteronomy gives conflicting accounts. It is as if there is some zone of blurring that prevents the contract from being read precisely.

A group of men and women live in the jungle. The physically stronger men are always attacking and killing the others, or capturing the women. The physically weaker men do what they can – curiously, they don’t form a pact among themselves as weaker men and ambush the strong. Instead, a pact is made with a strong man – the knowledge of pact making being, it seems, innate. Where is this pact? What tablet is it carved on? What does it say? We don’t ask this. Here, the zone of blurring is more in the nature of complete obscurity. It is a pact of gesture, apparently. There is no writing, but there is the pact. It is called a social contract.

A man sits at a table. Around him are gathered his twelve disciples. He takes a cup of wine, and says that this is his blood, and that they should drink it. He takes a loaf of bread, and he says this is his body, and that they should eat it.

Oh pacts, devil’s pacts, contracts, covenants, copies, mishnah! Where do you end, and where do I begin?

Up until the sixties, Freud was a constant reference in the social sciences. Yet, as early as 1920, Kroeber, in a review of a translation of Totem and Tabu in American Anthropologist, had pretty much torn the book apart, patiently demonstrating the out of date views (totemism as a function of exogamy), the misinterpretation of evidence – as Kroeber points out, Freud’s list of totems is cherrypicked and his list of the social functions accorded to it in the literature homogenized beyond what the evidence can bear, and the ahistorical scene setting (Freud’s appropriation of Darwin’s primal horde idea has no real geographic and temporal coordinates), and yet admitted that the book was too suggestive to be undermined completely by these errors. In 1939, Kroeber wrote a retrospective in which he claims that Freud had said he, Kroeber, had treated the book like one of Kipling’s Just so stories. In particular, Kroeber found the remarks on ambivalence and the remarks on mourning and anguish to be valuable, and in 1939 he made a very American distinction between what was fantasy in Freud – the killing of the father by the primal horde – and what was scientifically valuable – some form of the Oedipus complex. Already at that time, however, Malinowski had reformulated the OC to fit the Trobiand Islanders and their family configuration, so that the father substitute – the mother’s brother – played the role of the father. The Ortigues, in the sixties, published Oedipus in Africa in which they reported, from their clinical practice in Senegal, further modifications of the OC, refusing, at the same time, to generalize over all of Africa (the title of their book notwithstanding).

-- Freud himself thought that his two key books were Totem and Tabu and the Interpretation of Dreams – the latter being the founding text of the analysis of individual psychodynamics, the former being the founding text of collective psychodynamics. As Deleuze and Guattari observed, Freud’s work, like Marx, is a venture in universal history. But universal history in Freud's version plays itself out with a few twists. – one presaged by the romantic notion of “survivals”, bits of primitive lore and usage that still exist, in some modified form, within modernity. In Freud's version, the equation between the savage and the ancient Greek is enriched. New figures emerge, especially the threefold constellation of the child, the neurotic, and the primitive.

This leads, however, to further twists. For by Freud’s logic, there is a continual assault on the normal, which exists only as the result of a mythic catastrophe, or inversion: the slaying and eating of the father. His book, in the end, undermines the position of the norm by undermining the story of rationality. The story told by civilization about itself, or rather, by the civilized about civilization, which is a story that is not separate from civilization itself. Pacts and the bodies they form tend to merge, or tend, at least, to have erased boundaries that separate them one from the other.

In Totem and Tabu, the transposition of the savage to the place of the civilized is an explicit theme: there are a number of references to Kant’s categorical imperative, which is, in a sense, a pillar of the Enlightenment, as a tabu.


Alan said...

A prosaic question about the French:

I understand that Figaro thought that the Count had abolished the droit de seigneur in his domains, but in fact he hadn't. But I don't get how "en se mariant" fits in. Did Figaro think that it was by the Count's act of getting married that the droit honteux was abolished? How was that supposed to work?

roger said...

No, it was a verbal renunciation - or so the text would seem to imply. However, the background of that renunciation is in the earlier play, the Barber of Seville. I should look that up.