The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
June 15, 2006

Search for the Savage Inside Yourself - Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics
by Sigmund Freud
First published as Totem und Tabu, Hugo Heffer (Vienna, 1913)

translated by James Strachey
Pp. 172. Routledge, 1960

Available as a Routledge paperback, Totem and Taboo (Routledge Classics, 2001), 8.99

Totem and Taboo consists of four essays: "The Horror of Incest", "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence", "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts" and "The Return of Totemism in Childhood". They are like four mistletoe plants growing on a mighty oak. The oak itself could scarcely be mightier, for it is the works of Sir James Frazer, mainly in The Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy which had summarised the findings of a legion of researchers in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, starting almost from scratch, into the beliefs of "primitive" and "savage" peoples. The most frequent locus of research was in Australia and the South Pacific. The first dozen references in Totem and Taboo are to Frazer and he is quoted frequently throughout the four essays.

Freud's particular angle is that on reading anthropology he frequently remarks the similarities between the behaviour of his psycho-analytic patients and that of "primitive" peoples. The girl who will not sign her name for fear of it being stolen from her, the boy who is fascinated by rabbits, but also terrified by them, the woman who will not go down Smith Street because she has an ex-friend called Smith are all exhibiting behaviour which is irrational and abnormal in our society, but normal in much earlier forms of society.

Ambivalence is a typical and important link between the Viennese couch and the island hut: the woman who will not go to the shop to buy her husband's razors because the shop is next to the undertaker's is a case in point. It is not just that she is terrified of his dying and avoids any association with death. It is also that part of her longs for his death and is consumed with guilt for such longing. Such layered contradictions make you a "neurotic" in Vienna, but normal in Tuvalu.

One of the difficulties of reading Freud is that one must discipline oneself to distinguish the concepts and theories he actually uses from the vast dispersal and influence of "Freudianism" in twentieth century thought. This is not Freud's fault; it is the penalty of success.

"Taboo", for example, is a Polynesian word unknown before the work of the anthropologists but now, like Max Weber's secularisation of "charisma", it has popular and vague usage in virtually every language. We talk of "taboos" as if they were just banned areas and forbidden subjects, as in "Salaries are a taboo subject in English golf clubs". But the original concept is much more complex: at the very least it combines the idea of the "sacred" with that of the "unclean". (Maybe the salaries example was not so bad after all!) Jews and Muslims find pigs unclean, but not sacred. Taboos can be general or individual, but generally they are neither they pertain to a particular clan or "marriage group". Taboo in its Polynesian form is connected with mana, a kind of mystical, transferable power. It is contrasted with noa, loosely the ordinary or unmagical. Whereas mana has had some airing in western social science, noa, to the best of my knowledge, has not.

Although Freud sometimes seems to accept functional explanations for the existence of taboos he is more often keen to disavow them. Take, for example, the special case of incest. Vulgar functionalism might see this as a mechanism to avoid "inbreeding". But as an explanation this gets nowhere. The insistence on exogamy on marrying and breeding outside a group much more broadly defined than immediate relatives actually makes reproduction difficult. In any case there is no concept of "inbreeding" and no reason to understand its disadvantages. Consider the firmest of the prohibitions (p. 12):

By far the most widespread and strictest avoidance (and the most interesting from the point of view of civilised races) is that which restricts a man's intercourse with his own mother-in-law.
Yet there are no adverse genetic consequences to such breeding and it might well prove functional in a small tribe to utilise the womb-space of a widow in this way. How many men actually want to have intercourse with their mothers-in-law? (Freud is well aware of the joke dimension of this subject.)

Freud considers an account of the development of world-views (weltanschaungen) which would render the primitive irrelevant to the modern, summarised as (p. 88):

. . the account given above of the evolution of human views of the universe an animistic phase followed by a religious phase and this in turn by a scientific one . . .
The evolution of responsibility that follows from this is in some respects paradoxical. The animist sees everything in terms of anthropomorphic spirits, yet sees himself as responsible for everything. If it doesn't rain it is his own fault whereas both religion and science except the existence of impersonal forces which can only be subverted or manipulated to a limited extent. Thus the animist, faced by drought, does a raindance which must make it rain unless he gets it wrong. The theist goes off to the temple to pray for rain while the scientist seeds some rain clouds, both knowing that there may be nothing they can do.

But although this triadic developmental model may be true the exceptions and vestiges are far more important than the basic model. As with all sensible theories of development, the new overlays the old rather than replacing it. (I have no difficulty in accepting this given my obsessions with magpies and white rabbits and what turn out to be some very ancient ways of behaving with knives.) Even more important, though, is the belief common among Freud's contemporaries of several different persuasions that individual development mirrors the development of the species. Thus we start life as animists, narcissistic and auto-erotic, and there is always the possibility of regressing, at least partially, to this phase. Therefore a knowledge of the ways of the Arunta of Central Australia is useful by the Viennese psycho-analyst's couch.

Incidentally, if I give less attention to "totem" than to "taboo" it is because one of my earliest published works took Fraser's original definition of totem and developed it to explain contemporary views of landscape. It is quoted here on p. 130:

A totem is a class of material objects which a savage regards with superstitious respect, believing that there exists between him and every member of the class an intimate and altogether special relation . . . . The connection between a man and his totem is mutually beneficent . . .
Pendle Hill was then my totem and it still is!

The fourth of these essays assumes a different tone from its predecessors. They are careful and balanced; they prevaricate frequently over the significance of concepts and findings. But "The Return of Totemism in Childhood" sets off up a set of rickety steps to reach a height from which everything can be seen. We are parts of a collective mind. At the core of our being is memory and guilt about an act of patricide we committed in order to pursue our sexual interests. We celebrate our worship and our guilt in "totem meals". This has led to forms of guilt and worship which are as ineradicable as they are powerful (p. 156):
At the conclusion, then, of this exceedingly condensed inquiry, I should like to insist that its outcome shows that the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex.
And that, for example, the Roman Catholic communion, where we eat the body and drink the blood of the one whom we worship, but murdered, is deeply pre-religious. In explaining these conclusions Freud uses the rather telling phrase (p. 157, n.2):
Since I am used to being misunderstood . . .
He does ask us to believe an awful lot.

Subject-disciplines come close to the core of fashionable thinking and then are exiled to the periphery. They seem more or less philosophically profound as they do so. A hundred years ago anthropology and psycho-analysis seemed to be capable of telling us who we really are. Now biology has returned to the central position it had during the mid-nineteenth century. Freudianism, which transcended western thought for a time in the twentieth century, is now unfashionable. A brief perusal of problem pages suggests it is now normal, for instance, to suggest that dreams don't mean anything at all. Freudianism fails quite badly most of the positivistic tests which sciences set for themselves, but it has left a great deal of backwash.

The ethical implications of Freud can take us off in two completely different directions. Consider (p. 22):

It may well begin to dawn on us that the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us as we are inclined to think at first, that the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos and that an explanation of taboo might throw a light upon the obscure origin of our own "categorical imperative".
Given the theory of development and a rudimentary utilitarianism this might well be read as an injunction to cast away outdated shibboleths and be guided only by modern reason and a calculation of consequences. There doesn't seem any doubt that is how Freudianism, as a dispersed, popular phenomenon has worked. Update your morality to the third stage! But it is equally clear that it isn't what Freud himself believes: to him totem and taboo are so deep within us that a rationalist project is out of the question. He was deeply pessimistic and, in principle at least, it came as no surprise to him to end his life in exile from a state which regarded him as racially unclean.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

A good article with a distressingly high number of typographical errors ("dieing", indeed!).

Posted by: Neil Saunders at July 16, 2006 03:32 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement