Long Live Hybridity

by Mark Chmiel

On Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European
Introduction b Christopher Bollas
Response by Jacqueline Rose
Verso, 2003


In Jacqueline Rose’s eyes, Edward Said’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism is “[a] political parable, then, a model of reading, but no less powerfully, as I see it, a lament.” [67]   Said is surely appreciative of Freud as when he  notes, “Freud is a remarkable instance of a thinker for whom scientific work was, as he often said, a kind of archeological excavation of the buried, forgotten, repressed, and denied past….His work is all about how life history offers itself by recollection, research and reflection to endless structuring and restructuring, in both the individual and the collective sense.” [27]  Said sees how Freud unwittingly provides a model of identity for us, now, in the 21st  century, based on the reading of Freud’s late work, Moses and Monotheism.

He gleans from Freud’s text— “Moses—founder of Judaism but an unreconstructed non-Jewish Egyptian none the less. Jahveh derived from Arabia, which was also non-Jewish and non-European” [42]—and links this to the contemporary scene in the Middle East where a different kind of more monolithic identity  is being constructed: “Out of the travails of specifically European anti-Semitism, the establishment of Israel, in a non-European territory, consolidated Jewish identity politically in a state that took very specific legal and political positions effectively to seal off that identity from anything that was non-Jewish. By defining itself as a state of and for the Jewish people, Israel allowed exclusive immigration and land-owning rights there for Jews only, even though there were former non-Jewish residents and present non-Jewish citizens whose rights were attenuated in the case of the latter, abrogated retrospectively in the case of the former.” [43-44]

In Israel what one needs to be alert to is this unproblematic, assured, totalistic sense of Jewish identity—like LW’s hand-written letter to me,  referring to “our 3500 year old home”—a sure sign  of distortion.  Rose sees Said’s claim “that Freud’s partial, fragmented, troubled, and at times self-denying relationship to his own Jewishness can provide a model for identity in the modern world.” [66]  Rose would disagree that Said is himself being a little too firm when he  states, “As I shall try to show, the actual Jewishness that derives from Moses is far from open-and-shut matter, and is in fact extremely problematic. Freud is resolutely divided about it; indeed, I would go so far as to say that he is deliberately antinomian in his beliefs.” [32]  Rose points out that what Said is arguing, linking Moses and monotheism to the contemporary Middle East, is that Israel represses Freud: “Quite differently from the spirit of Freud’s deliberately provocative reminders that Judaism’s founder was a non-Jew, and that Judaism begins in the realm of Egyptian, non-Jewish monotheism, Israeli legislation countervenes, represses, and even cancels Freud’s carefully maintained opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background.” [44]

Israel has come up with answers to the perennial question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”  To be Jewish is to be Israeli and live on the land of Eretz Israel and to live in a state with other Jews.  Said: “Freud, by contrast, had left considerable room to accommodate Judaism’s non-Jewish antecedents and contemporaries. That is to say: in excavating the archeology of Jewish identity, Freud insisted that it did not begin with itself but, rather, with other identities (Egyptian and Arabian) which his demonstration on Moses and monotheism goes a great distance to discover, and thus restore to scrutiny.” [44]

We’re more complex, complicated, and hybridic, than we want to admit. I think of the East Coast theologian who is writing about the moral crisis of whiteness.  According to Said, there is no purity, though some wish to claim that they are pure and, supposedly, superior.

Said’s believes that he is “right in surmising that Freud mobilized the non-European past in order to undermine any doctrinal attempt that might be made to put Jewish identity on a sound foundational basis, whether religious or secular” [45]:

Now it is more universalized: in our age of vast population transfers, of refugees, exiles, expatriates and immigrants, it can also be identified in the disaporic, wandering, unresolved, cosmopolitan consciousness of someone who is both inside and outside his or her community. This is now a relatively widespread phenomenon, even though an understanding of what that condition means is far from common. Freud’s meditations and insistence on the non-European from a Jewish point of view provide, I think, an admirable sketch of what it entails, by way of refusing to resolve identity into some of the nationalist or religious herds into which so many people want to desperately to run. More bold 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. [53-54]

Freud’s symbol of those limits was that the founder of Jewish identity was himself a non-European Egyptian. In other words, identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot radically constitute or even imagine itself without that radical original break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered—and later, perhaps even triumphed. The strength of this thought is, I believe, 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 or resolved or Stoic calm, and no utopian reconciliation even within itself.

The questions Freud therefore leaves us with are: can so utterly inductive and so deeply undetermined a history even be written? In what language, and with what sort of vocabulary?  Can it aspire to the condition of a politics of diaspora life? Can it ever become the not-so-precarious foundation in the land of Jews and Palestinians of a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts, rather than antagonists of each other’s history and underlying reality? I myself believe so—as much 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. 55

It occurs to me that Freud was really adumbrating  in the thirties what Thich Nhat Hanh has been articulating since the 1960s, and which would probably be anathema to many US Jews:  the Jew is made up of non-Jewish elements. All the more so, since Judaism’s heroic father himself wasn’t Jewish!

Reading this short book, I am reminded of something I must have read in Said’s interviews with David Barsamian: the Israeli  Jews of all people, after undergoing what they did in Europe, should know better than to do oppress the Palestinians.  Rose ends her response to Said’s reflections with an apt and cautionary reminder: A broken identity can lead not simply to openness or tolerance but also to a hardening of identity and the furious embrace of dogma and denial.