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Sigmund Freud and Jewish Mysticism: An Exploration

  • Christine Downing
Chapter
Part of the Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism book series (INTERMYST)

Abstract

In Civilization And Its Discontents, Freud famously declared that he could discover no trace of “oceanic feeling,” the sense of being wholly at one with the world, in himself and furthermore that this mystical feeling did not fit his understanding of religion, which he saw as issuing from helplessness, from need, not fulfillment. So, despite his professed atheism, Judaism’s emphasis on a Father god, both protecting and demanding, seemed to him the epitome of religion. Nevertheless, mysticism continued to intrigue him. His very last written words, scribbled a few weeks before his death, were: “Mysticism - the obscure self-perception of the realm outside the I - the That [or the It, the Id].” Even within Civilization, as he explores mysticism’s relation to orgasmic fulfillment, to the narcissistic temptation to withdraw libido from the outer world, to recover that sense of being whole in ourselves and at one with the world that we fantasize we experienced “at the beginning,” and to the death drive, he actually makes clear that he recognizes the longing for oneness, for wholeness and harmony, as representing one of the two deepest forces at work in the human soul—and perhaps ultimately the deeper one. And years earlier, in a letter to Jung in which he writes of the complex numerology associated with his conviction that he would die between the ages of 61 and 62, he says this serves as confirmation of “the specifically Jewish nature of my mysticism.” It is fascinating to pursue this theme. To explore, as David Bakan does in his Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, how closely Freud’s mode of dream interpretation follows midrashic and kabbalistic ways of working with and moving beyond the biblical text. Indeed, Freud himself, toward the end of Interpretation of Dreams, says of his way of working with dreams, “We have treated them as Holy Writ.” In his Autobiographical Study, Freud wrote, “My deep engrossment in the Bible story (almost as soon as I had learned the art of reading) had, as I recognized much later, an enduring effect upon the direction of my interest.” We can see this in his lifelong identifications with the figures of the biblical Jacob and Joseph and, preeminently, with Moses. Most significant of all is the almost mystical awe with which Freud speaks of the unconscious, how he recognizes the energies at play as “indestructible forces which the ancients recognized as being due their homage,” that is, as divine. And yet to honor Freud, it is important to add a Coda that acknowledges his awareness of how an uncritical celebration of those unconscious energies, of the mystical, the mythic, the nonrational, led too many of his contemporaries to initially miss the dangers represented by the rise of Nazism.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pacifica Graduate InstituteSanta BarbaraUSA

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