Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
  Frued, modernity and postcolonial violence
Analytic attitude, dissent and the boundaries of the self

  Looking for me
  Vol IV : issue 5 & 6

  Cover page
  Ashis Nandy
  Kunwar Narain
  S. Diwakar
  Tadeus Pfeifer
  Satish Alekar
Only in Print

Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

Ashis Nandy

Acrylic on canvas by SHANU LAHIRI

We live in an intellectual edifice primarily built by the European Enlightenment. It is not very old, having been given its final shape less than three hundred years ago, and our concepts of an ideal society and meaningful social criticism are coloured by this heritage. However, this said, we also have to confront the uncomfortable reality that these concepts of a desirable society and desirable forms of social criticism invoke altogether different associations in other parts of the world. These other associations have acquired new play in recent years because the Enlightenment vision itself has, finally, come under scrutiny in North America and Western Europe. Indeed, the rumours about its complicity with the violence of our times have been given a certain edge by a whole range of work.

Take for example the crisis in the Middle East. Jerusalem is on the one hand an ancient city of spiritual and moral grace, and on the other, a city of violence, uprooting and divided selves. Simone Weil and Martin Buber, I suspect, lived with the first Jerusalem, the modern Israelis live with the second. For the former, Jerusalem not only had secular and sacred geographies, but also moral and psychological ones. The latter seem to oscillate between their passion for an Israeli nation-state delicately perched on the desperate denial of a West Asian identity and a fierce commitment to a secular, modern European identity, precariously balanced on memories of massive suffering and projects of annihilation, once so lovingly designed by Europe for its Jewish population. The denial goes with a refusal to acknowledge that the Arabs and the Jews are often not divided by distance but by proximity. The commitment goes with the search for a magical remedy for remembered discrimination and genocide in the values of the European Enlightenment, presum ably in the belief that a European disease requires European therapy. The search reaffirms an identity that many can neither disown nor fully own up to.

I shall use as my baseline what one of the greatest ever products of the Jewish tradition, Sigmund Freud, who lived much of his life with an ambivalent aware ness of his cultural-religious status, might have said about the bitterness that has come to surround Jerusalem. Namely, that the narcissism of small differences and familiarity is often a better predictor of ethnic discontents and violence in our age than distance and ignorance. I am told that in the late nineteenth century a Belgian anthropologist, finding it difficult to ethnographically distinguish between the Hutus and the Tutsis, ultimately decided to distinguish between the two tribes by the number of heads of cattle they owned. When the Rwandan genocide took place, that story became one of the ways of acknowledging what many anthropologists always knew, that the Hutus and Tutsis were two tribes that, apart from being neighbours, were closest to each other ethnographically. There is a parallel to this in the Bosnian situation too. About 30 per cent of the Bosnian Muslims, one hears, are related to the Serbs by marriage.

I simultaneously want to use as my baseline some of the popular forms that the Enlightenment values have taken in the global middle-class culture to serve as the heart of a global structure of common sense. This is important because these values now shape our concepts of the normal, the rational and the sane, both within and outside the clinic. I shall also lay my cards on the table and confess that I am suspicious of the claim that Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries answered all basic questions of humankind once and for all, that all it left for the other civilisations to do is to write a few polite footnotes and useful appendices to these answers.

The body of work that challenges the Enlighten ment vision, when not directly dependent on psychoanalytic insights, has borrowed heavily from clinical work and therapeutic visions. Why?

One reason could be that the first psychoanalyst was a rebellious child of the Enlighten ment. He did not reject the Enlightenment vision, but the social critique he offered was not from the vantage ground of the Enlightenment’s standard ideas of a desirable society and knowledge. He tried to supply a critique of the Enlightenment reason from within its perimeters but while doing so, often accidentally strayed into strange territories. Indeed, his crypto-Platonic worldview was more open-ended than it had seemed at one time. Scholars have located in Freud’s work a whole range of new elements — from German romanticism and Naturphilosophie and the more open-ended concept of science associated with that tradition, to the East European, Hassidic-Jewish culture and mystical tradition that occasionally broke through his public self and overdone conformity to the model of the positive sciences.[1] As he gained confidence in his middle years, he returned to some of the philosophical and civilisational questions that had always haunted him. Books like Civilisation and its Discontents, The Future of an Illusion, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Moses and Monotheism and Thoughts for the Times on War and Death could be read as ‘regressions’ to a more defiant and daring mode of psychological theorisation. These works are more Dostoyevskyan and more informed by his tragic vision of life. They show that Freud was no intellectual kin of Francis Bacon, though sometimes, in his cultural and intellectual insecurity, he appeared or pretended to be so. At least one commentator has felt compelled to say that Freud’s tragic vision implied a rejection of ‘the simplest Anglo-American belief in the virtues of progress.’[2]

Unfortunately, despite the rediscovery of psychoanalysis by literary theory and cultural studies in the last decade, this other Freud, a product of multiple cultural traditions who tries to negotiate cultural borders, remains a stranger to many. The limited cultural sensitivities of some of the mainstream schools of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis partly derive from this. These schools seem to be unaware that even modernity is no longer what it was, that four hundred years is a long time in human history; even the Dark Ages in Europe did not last that long. Today modernity, to qualify as such, requires an element of self-criticism or at least a sense of loss. The problem is compounded by the various schools of post-Freudian psychology, which are mostly progenies of the theoretical frames that crystallised as forms of dissent within the Enlighten ment. Even when they defy the modern, the defiance is primarily addressed to and remains confined within the citadels of modernity. The ones that try to break out of the grid often turn out to be transient fashions of brief shelf life. A culture not only produces its own ideas of conformity but also its distinctive concepts of valid or sane dissent. Worse, what looks like dissent in one culture at one time may not appear so in another culture at another time. Let me give an example.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 notes

Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi