Michael Kinnucan

The Political Theology of Sigmund Freud


Consider the sad case of the obsessive-compulsive. The clinical picture is at once simple and engrossing: the sufferer’s life is bounded in every direction by prohibitions (I can’t go in there, I can’t eat that, I can’t see him or call her...) and by compulsions (check the locks 17 times, wash your hands until they’re raw and bleeding, fold it perfectly and if you miss the crease start over again). Prohibitions and compulsions are not always clearly distinguished (the obligation to pluck every piece of lint off every piece of clothing before you leave the house can easily become a prohibition on leaving the house), and in their extension and elaboration they risk enveloping the patient’s life perfectly: he may do nothing but that which he is compelled to do. And to the question “why must you do these things?”, he can give no answer at all: the rationalizations with which the high-functioning neurotic justifies his various habits collapse under the obvious absurdity of what the really ill must do. The moral code of the obsessive-compulsive is written in an idiom which isolates him from the rest of mankind, but worse still, it’s an idiom which he himself can’t comprehend: he lives under a private law more exacting than any written code, at once impossibly rigid in its demands and subject to sudden and incomprehensible changes.

Freud argues that such compulsion has its root in the infantile desire to touch, to touch oneself, and the parental ban on this practice. The desire is too intense to be abandoned, so it must be repressed. But a repressed desire, orphaned in the unconscious, follows the strange paths of a dream logic; instead of disappearing, it metastatizes through an elaborate system of metaphor. Speaking, writing, eating are also kinds of touch: they too can satisfy the repressed desire, so soon enough they too must be banned. Prohibitions must become increasingly elaborate and far-sighted to defend as completely as possible against the temptation to violate. Then, again, since in such a rule-bound world violation is everywhere, rituals of expiation must be developed to bind the guilt and anxiety of transgression. The principle of the obsessive is that every single thing that he desires must be banned; the principle of the psychoanalyst, inversely, is that every single thing which is banned must be immensely desirable. In Freud’s words, “[the obsessive] is constantly wishing to perform this act (the touching), and looks on it as his supreme enjoyment, but he must not perform it and detests it as well” (Totem and Taboo). The unconscious desire and the conscious prohibition say exactly the same thing.

Hence the twist, the artistic flourish of the consummate obsessive: the expiatory rituals he is compelled to perform come to symbolize the very desired act they are supposed to expunge. “I’ve been very bad, I’ve done disgusting things with my hands, so I must wash them over and over again, rub them raw one thousand times, rub and rub and rub until they are perfectly, perfectly oooooh so clean.” Freud notes that “it is a law of neurotic illness that these obsessive acts fall more and more under the sway of the instinct and approach nearer and nearer to the activity which was originally prohibited.” Bizarre, but perfectly intelligible: after all, the neurotic’s private law is itself obsessed with masturbation. It has no positive goal, it speaks of nothing else. It’s like a Baptist preacher describing in elaborate detail the revolting details of the homosexual lifestyle, week after week: more invested in homosexuality than the open homosexuals themselves, he’s one trivial, forgettable “no” away from openly pronouncing a homoerotic fantasy to the assembled crowd. How appropriate and how common it is for the preacher to conclude that his homosexual desire is so repellent that the only appropriate punishment for it is the most terrible one of all: to be fucked up the ass by a man. (The addict finds himself in a similar condition: stop doing this, it’s killing you, the sort of person who would do this deserves to die, do it again.) This is the neurotic’s inside joke: the disappearing point at which compliance and transgression become indistinguishable. It’s also the craftiest attack he can mount on the law that binds him, the point at which he confronts the law with what it doesn’t want to know about itself.

So: lucky neurotic? In a sense, yes: he’s getting off. But there’s a further move in the game. If the obsessive has managed to combine obedience to the law with transgression through the accurate observation that law and desire follow the same path, this isn’t merely a scandal for the law: it’s equally a critique of desire. The neurotic identifies freedom with transgression of the law; in so he doing he plays the law’s game, allowing it to define with its monotonous negation the field of “supreme enjoyment.” Just as the law speaks, albeit negatively, of nothing but desire, desire in its turn has come to speak only of the law. The obsessive’s problem, after all, was never that he was exiled from pleasure: as we’ve seen, he can get off anywhere, and even where one would least expect it. His problem was the obsessive-compulsive order, an all-too-perfect order in which every act is either necessary or impossible, in which literally nothing can be done. That law’s prohibition and desire’s compulsion have come to bear on exactly the same act is not the cure but the perfection of this disease.

The Primal Father

Freud’s fundamental book on law and desire, his myth of the origin of law, is Totem and Taboo. In order to explain the advent of human society, Freud does what everyone in his situation does: he constructs a myth of the society before society, the land before time. He takes the basic features of this myth from Darwin. The original human social organization is the “primal horde” ruled by a powerful adult male; this adult male fucks all the women and kills any other man who challenges his authority or touches his women. The first moment in human development is not anarchy but tyranny of the most absolute kind, an order formed on the basis of unmediated violence.

To state the obvious: Freud is describing the Garden of Eden. The primal horde is a new way of imagining Paradise. It is doubly qualified to be this in two ways, one most properly political, the other theological or rather theodical. Politically, the government of the primal horde predates the original sin of the political order: the question of legitimacy and more specifically of legitimate violence. In our fallen world every government, no matter how tyrannical, makes an appeal to legitimacy; legitimacy is the invisible mark that distinguishes the state’s violence from that of the criminals and rebels it assaults. This appeal introduces a gap in the otherwise closed circle of self-justifying violence: the state’s visible power to kill must distinguish itself from other visible powers by referring above itself to a higher court in which the right to kill is in question. And no matter how formal or perfunctory this appeal becomes in any given case, nonetheless it exists and threatens. The gap between visible power and its legitimation is the gap in which all rebellions take root, because the verdict of the court always threatens to be as follows: there is no legitimate violence, the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence is nothing more than the seal by which today’s victor celebrates his victory in the vain hope of rendering it permanent. Governments begin and end with blood. This scandal is endemic to the constituted governments of the fallen world, and all the brave attempts that have been made to exorcize and forbid the question of legitimacy (the great task of early modern political philosophy, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza) have failed to absolve rule of its basic injustice. Law is injustice, the foundation of legitimacy is cracked. The primal father’s rule alone is free of this stain—needless to say it never existed—because here alone the appeal from power to justice is never made. His power is simply his capacity to kill. His reign is certainly not just, but neither is it unjust, and here he has the advantage over all the governments since his day.

The second sense in which the primal horde is paradise has to do with a question of theological economics, of “theodicy”: the fantasmatic balance between renunciation and pleasure. In the fallen world, the loss of pleasure through renunciation and obedience is justified by promises of pleasure at a future date, but it’s hard to miss the fact that the accounts don’t balance: from early on we are forced to not do precisely those things that we should like to do, and our renunciations are never paid their weight in pleasure in all our lives. So where’s the joy going? A theory that will always have adherents runs as follows: someone is stealing the pleasure. Maybe a welfare queen in a Cadillac, or a fat-cat banker smoking cigars, or some scum Jew, as the case may be, the pleasure’s gotta go somewhere. Right? Well, no. Your parents don’t make you stop masturbating and eat your vegetables because they get off on that shit; you just have to, just like they had to too. The moral law isn’t organized in anyone’s interest; it’s infinitely demanding but without any goal. It’s a Kafka machine, all bureaucrats, no kings, and if Kafka’s characters spend decades wandering corridors without quite figuring this out it’s because they don’t want to know. It would be better if someone was getting all the pleasure; at least the pleasure would be there.

The primal father solves this problem: he makes law out of his pleasure. In the primal horde the explanation for every renunciation is a pleasure somewhere else—in the father, in God. Here Freud invests and transforms a tradition as old as Christianity: the heretical (Gnostic or Manichean) answer to the theodical problem of suffering. Why is the world bereft of pleasure? Because this world’s creator wants it that way, because we live under the reign of a cruel god. The Gnostics (and Blake after them) attributed the ten commandments to a wicked Jehovah, Jehovah the alias of Satan the prince of lies. Freud’s dream of the primal horde follows the same trajectory: power and pleasure occupy the same place, they unite in the glorious barbaric king. Against the profound pessimism of a tradition obsessed with the suffering king, the suffering God, the image of the primal father represents something like a glorification of this world.


How, then, does the fall come about? How can justice be founded in this world of violence? The transition from de facto power to de jure legitimacy, though simple enough and frequently achieved in pratice, is in principle so obviously impossible that its explanation has been the central task of modern political philosophy for centuries. Freud, however, eschews the explanations of political philosophy (contract and consquest) in favor of an older, theological tradition: law is born of a crime. The sons of the primal horde rebel; they band together and kill the father, and what’s more, “primitive cannibals that they are,” they eat him up.

It must be said that initially, at least, it’s not entirely clear where this gets us. Won’t the alliance of the brothers immediately collapse into a war of all against all, as each seeks to become the father of his very own horde? Or perhaps we’ll say that the brothers, preferring the security of alliance to the risks of an absolute rule, agree among themselves to prevent any one of their number from gaining ascendancy. If this were Freud’s theory, it would be no more than another edition of the old social contract myth, and would be vulnerable to the definitive critique of such myths: that a contract must presuppose the law and so cannot found it.

Freud takes another road. He observes that the attitude of the sons toward their father was not wholly hostile: they wanted to be him, after all, and identification is a kind of love. He was the most admirable man, fearless, dangerous, nearly omnipotent. To this extent they adored him and wanted him more than all the women he possessed. That’s why they ate him, to get as much of him as they could. Hence once the father had been killed, their feelings took the course they often do even today when a parent dies: they found that they had loved him more than they’d realized, and they were overcome with guilt. Now that he was safely out of the way in flesh, their adoration returned in full force. In bitter remorse they erected the totem-taboo in his place and surrounded it with elaborate protections, disavowing the crime they now regretted. They even renounced the women for whose sake they’d committed the crime: no one would occupy the father’s place. The two great primal laws, against killing the totem and against incest within the totem clan, thus flowed directly from the primal crime. As Freud says, the father becomes more powerful dead than he was when living.

In Freud’s myth, the fruit of the tree is the father’s flesh, but the snake in the garden is ambivalence. That’s his answer to the question: what binds us to the law in our hearts, what makes even the criminal confess its justice? Before the father’s death there was no law, only force. Now each of the brothers confesses the law and even wills it. Why? Because they loved the king before the law so much that they hate themselves for killing him, and in their self-hatred they forswear his place. The law is mourning; the law flows from a throne at the center of the world which will always remain empty. Because we sinned against the father in order to become him, we will never become him: no one will be above the law.

Truth and Consequences

The religion with which the brothers mourn after their crime is apparently simple, but deeply hypocritical: the totem animal is surrounded with elaborate ritual protections (to disavow the crime), except on certain feast-days when it must be sacrificed and eaten (a repetition and celebration). The women of the tribe are absolutely forbidden to any man because they are the heart’s desire of every man. Apparently, this social form is a vexed compromise between conflicting emotions: the sons hate their father, and also they love him. But this formulation contains a misunderstanding: the contradiction in the totem is not a war between two desires but the inner conflict of a single need. The sons killed their father because they loved him, and just because they love him they cannot take his place. To love the father is to want to kill him, to kill him is to betray this love. Hence every act of repentance will be tinged with aggression, and every renewed assault will provoke new guilt. The history of human societies, in Freud’s telling, is the plunge into this contradiction: “whatever attempt was made at solving the religious problem... sooner or later broke down.”

Freud goes on to offer a pocket history of religion in terms of this breakdown. First comes the totem feat. But as time goes on, the sons are forced to recognize that none of them will ever replace the father: the deed was in vain, and he’s never coming back. Out of their grief and unrequited love they invent gods in the image of the father; now a god presides over the totem sacrifice, which takes the form of an atonement. Gods become ever more exalted as the human who was god becomes ever more remote; the division between the human and the divine grows ever deeper. In an act of disavowal men claim that it is not they who are responsible for the sacrifice, that the god himself demands it. But the truth once again shines through: the animal sacrificed in these rites is the very one sacred to the god, his representative. In some rites (the classic example is the Athenian festival of Dionysos) it is even made explicit that the god himself is the one who dies.

The advent of priests and kings, ersatz father-images and oppressors, provokes a new burst of aggression: men begin to invent young gods, god-the-sons who rebel against their fathers. But the rebellion is doomed to failure, and the sons receive the most terrible punishments in mythological compensation. These young gods serve a dual purpose, at once satisfying the impulse to kill and taking responsibility for the crime. But men’s attempt to make someone else responsible for their dead will always collapse in the face of their desire to repeat it. The last of the classical son-gods was Mithras, represented as a youthful man killing a monstrous bull. But Mithras could not compete with the final word in Oedipal religion: the myth of Jesus Christ.

In Christianity nearly everything is in its place. Original sin is openly acknowledged and made responsible for the law; if it is not explicitly clear that the first rebellion was a murder, the fact that its atonement requires death clearly implies as much. (And doesn’t God say in the Garden that if Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Life, they would have become as gods themselves?) Christianity appears as the final victory of repentance over aggression in relation to the primal crime: in an ecstasy of sorrow the Christian acknowledges himself as guilty, renounces his ambitious self-will, and begs forgiveness of the father. The death of the son makes good the debt. But what happens then? In dying the son takes the place of the father; by atoning he becomes God. And we celebrate this event in the Eucharist, by coming together to eat the mortal God’s flesh. Christianity is the last and strangest compromise: we atone for killing the father by eating his flesh.

The Christian Split

Freud has a storied reputation as an enemy of religion, one of the great demystifying atheists. Nothing in Totem and Taboo justifies this. If we accept Freud’s definition of religion in terms of “the religious problem”—the problem of relating oneself in some way to the primal crime—then the psychologizing, rationalist atheism with which his name is associated appears as a superficial disavowal. Such atheists may say what they will; their compulsion and guilt will speak against them. They know very well what they are. Freud, who in a certain sense thought nothing but the religious problem, has nothing to do with them.

If Totem and Taboo contains a profound and perhaps definitive critique of Christianity, this critique begins as a vindication: in Christianity nearly everything is in its place. God really did die, we really did kill him, we are overcome with guilt for this and must atone. Christianity is a retelling of the most momentous event in human history, and of all the ways it’s been told Christianity comes closest to the truth. Freud’s attack on Christianity takes its stand precisely on the side of this truth. Freud is not an unbeliever but a heresiarch: he appeals beyond the church’s dogma to the event as it was.

And what, finally, is heretical in Freud’s account of Christianity? What does the Christian myth miss? It’s oddly hard to say. We love God and hate him, he had to die that we might be like him, we benefit from his death—on all this Freud and a Christian could only agree. But a hypocrisy hides here nonetheless. The Christian religion has always been haunted by Gnostic and Manichean heresies with good reason: what kind of God the Father demands blood sacrifice of the innocent God the Son? Is it not a wicked God, the same one who imposed the cruel law to punish mankind? Is Christ Jehovah’s child or his nemesis? To at once invite and disavow this conclusion, to affirm the mystical unity of cruel father and beloved son, is the very essence of orthodox Christianity. The regime of identification here is extremely complex, but the contradiction may be simply posed: in Christianity love of God is the sole condition of salvation, and this love is celebrated under the sign of the crucifix on which God has died. The believer hates God in his heart.

Freud’s Religion

When psychoanalysis was culturally relevant, half a century ago, it was a cliché to say that it was a new religion—that the analyst’s couch had replaced the confessional and so forth. If we are give to this claim its proper weight, two questions immediately present themselves: first, is psychoanalysis a religion? Second, is it new?

Oddly enough, the first question is simpler. If we remain within Freud’s definition of the “religious problem”—the problem of entering into a relation with the primal crime and the love that produced it—then psychoanalysis is without doubt a religious practice: in analysis one learns to know oneself as Oedipus, to confess one’s guilt as the guilt of parricide. The essence of illness is evasion and repression of this universal fact; only confessing the truth can cure it. The analogy with the Christian confessional and the saving truth is obvious. And so we come to the question: in what sense is psychoanalysis new? Guilt and the obligation to truth: isn’t it Christianity without Christ?

To respond we must distinguish between the father of psychoanalytic practice (the Oedipal father) and the father of psychoanalytic myth (the primal father). The Oedipal father enforces the law with the threat of castration; it is he who orients the neurotic’s repressions and fears. The neurotic would like to fuck his mother and kill his father, but he is too scared of his father and so he represses and runs. Freud never gave up on the universality of the Oedipus complex, but he never lost sight of its strangeness: where does this image of the father come from, how is it that neurotics manage to find this monstrous image in their generally quite ordinary dads?

At first glance the killing of the primal father appears to be the fulfillment of the neurotic’s deepest wish. We all want to kill our fathers, and at the beginning we really did. But what happened then? Why, finally, are we guilty, according to Freud? Not because we killed the father—before the law, killing was not a sin. We are guilty because we killed the father in order to replace him and yet were not able to take his place. The sight of the great man’s corpse chilled us to the bone. We are guilty because the desire by which we are driven is always betrayed in the moment of truth. The law forbids the very thing that we found we could not do; it blocks the way back to the site of our failure.

The Oedipal father who enforces the law is an alibi, and a ghost. As long as he blocks the path of desire we can avoid knowing where it ends. If he didn’t exist we’d have to invent him, and in fact that’s what we do. The truth of the Oedipal father who haunts our unconscious is the primal father whom we already killed; the truth of his omnipotence is our impotence. The neurotic in his suffering preserves pleasure in an elsewhere—somewhere where it isn’t already too late.

On the Prospects for Atheism Going Forward

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
—Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, or a character of his.

Let’s step back from this brink for a moment and collect ourselves. The primal horde never existed, of course; the rebellion of the sons is the French Revolution in blackface. What Freud took to be the origin of Judeo-Christianity is in fact its final chapter. Psychoanalysis represents the dead end of the specifically Christian form of atheism: the recognition that even when God dies, it still won’t help. We have ample evidence of this by now; God has died, and nothing is permitted. Under Christianity law always flowed from His bleeding corpse, and so it still does today. One certainly hopes this isn’t the way history ends, but the way forward is unclear. How to bury the undead? How to build no monument and forget His name?

Let’s take another look at this last mask of Jehovah, this debased god. The primal father, interestingly enough, does what many other gods have done but what the Judeo-Christian god has never done: he has sex. Or apparently he does; it’s actually a little unclear. Certainly he owns all the women, but this ownership seems less a matter of enjoyment than of exclusion: it’s enormously important to him that they remain untouched by all other men. Which, if we allow ourselves the pleasure of reading a myth realistically for just a moment, is rather farcical: one imagines that considering the time he’d have to devote to killing or castrating the sons creeping into his seraglio, he wouldn’t have much time left over for sex. And what the women themselves do is, well, precisely nothing. In the game of love and death, the father and sons are the players and the women are a way to keep score.1 Their feelings are left so far out of account that according to Freud’s logic, women can’t really be religious in the eminent sense—they’re outside the religious problem, they’re neither killers nor killed. This exclusion isn’t even “problematic,” it’s so bizarre.

In psychoanalysis pleasure continually slides under power as the mother fades away behind the father and the object evanesces into the sign. The mother in the Oedipus complex may begin as a source of the son’s pleasure, but she always ends as a sign of the father’s power, and no more than a sign. One gets her as a way of becoming him. And yet the byway through the mother-sign is necessary, because the obvious shortcut—fucking the father directly—means castration too. In a certain sense male homosexuality is the ur-sexuality of psychoanalysis, on condition that this homosexuality is understood as identification, and identification as a battle to the death. As long as pleasure is thought as power it remains impossible except as a sign (as the phallus), and as long as it remains so we’ll be haunted by the image of the one who really had it (not merely as a sign).

1 None of this is to say that Freud is merely repressive and patriarchal (yes but...) or out of date (we wish!). Psychologists and mythopoets tell us how things are, not how they should be, and in my experience what Freud describes is much of how things are. There are other ways to have sex, surely: to remain among fathers and sons, I’ve written elsewhere about Freud’s great psychotic, Daniel Paul Schreber, who imagined he was neither God nor God’s woman, but the organ of God’s pleasure here on Earth. Likewise and farther afield, the flourishing of BDSM culture is a hopeful sign: BDSM recognizes power as a site for the production of pleasure, not an instrument of its consumption and control.

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