Myth of Origins

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Freudian thought on origins translates an effort to think the extraindividual, in order to anchor the subject within the ancestral lineage and the history of the species as well as within biology. Several modalities can be discerned: the myth of origins; the genetic myth—the foundational role of the drives as a substrate of the psyche; and primal fantasies and/or fantasies of origins.

Neither maternal nor natural, the myth of origins in the work of Sigmund Freud from the outset placed the history of humanity at the horizon of the paternal function: The original myth is held to be that of the murder of the father. This Freudian theory posited the murder of the primitive father as the starting point for humanity and society. The hypothesis must be understood not as historical truth but as a working myth that expresses the posited requirement that each human being, in the words of Freud, be "an offshoot of Oedipus." Put forward by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913) and taken up again in A Phylogenetic Fantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses (1985a [1915]), this myth retraces the history of the primitive horde ruled by a tyrannical father who requires total submission of his sons and exclusive ownership of all the females. However, the brothers form a coalition to kill the father, and devour him in a cannibalistic celebration. They then erect a totem representing the father and impose a prohibition against incest. This symbolic pact and the rules that result from it constitute the beginnings of society.

Freud elaborated this myth of origins in light of his readings in ethnology and anthropology, analyzing the meanings of totems and taboos in so-called primitive societies. This enabled him to observe that totemic activity coincided with exogamy, that is, the neutralization of the practice of incest. Freud asserted in Totem and Taboo: "The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things—of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion" (p. 142). Elsewhere, he pointed out that in the Christian myth, the original sin was the result of an offense against God the Father. By sacrificing his own life to free men from this sin, Christ tends to reconcile humankind with God the Father. Through his sacrifice, the son himself becomes God in place of the father. The religion of the son replaced the religion of the father. To mark this substitution, the old totemic meal was revived: The communion was instituted, in which the gathered brethren eat and drink the flesh and blood of the son, rather than the father, to sanctify themselves and identify with him. At the same time, noted Freud in "Totem and Taboo," a "sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have had no knowledge of that action" (p. 158).

In this regard, Jacques Lacan believed that Freud had implicitly assumed that "a forgotten drama traverses the ages in the unconscious," as he wrote inÉcrits (1966/2002); he deduced from this that the true father, "the symbolic Father, insofar as he signifies this Law, is truly the dead Father" (p. 189). More specifically, according to Lacan, "it is thanks to the Name-of-the-Father that aggression against the Father is at the principle of the Law and that the Law is in service to the desire it institutes by the prohibition against incest."

What we find to be of primordial importance in the reading of this myth is that the murder of the father is repeated by the sons during the religious ritual in the form of sacrifice; this constitutes the symbolic pact among the brothers, who thus celebrate the restoration of authority, in which they participate from that point on. It is this precise moment that we consider to be the cornerstone of hominization and of culture (Kristeva, 1996). In Freud's view, on the individual level we are all, unbeknownst to ourselves, repositories of this myth of origins, which each of us reactualizes through the realization of his or her Oedipus complex; he considered the latter, as he wrote in "Totem and Taboo," to constitute "the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art" (p. 156) and also "the nucleus of all neuroses" (p. 157). He was later led to reintegrate into his inquiries into origins the maternal function, seemingly evacuated from this myth, by discovering an early link between mother and daughter that he compared to Minoan-Mycenaean culture, long hidden by Athenian culture.

By extension, thinking about origins appears in the form of an anchoring of the psyche in the archè of biology, expounded initially in Freud's correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess between 1887 and 1902 (Extracts from the Fliess Papers [1950]) and later in "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1915), "Negation" (1925), and "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" (1940). For the father of psychoanalysis, there could be no doubt that psychic life originated in the organism and that it could thus be conceived of as an evolved form of biological life. This bracketing together of the two is conceptualized in terms of anaclisis, with self-preservation serving as a support to the libido. Also resulting from this is the essential place of the drives as a borderline concept between the somatic and the psychic. In this spirit, in his "metapsychological" essays Freud advanced the hypothesis of an innate "unconscious kernel," around which agglomerates all that the individual represses in the course of development. This explains how the unconscious can be organized in the same way in all individuals and how it can be made intelligible in and through psychoanalysis. To attach the psychic apparatus to this biological reservoir, Freud proposed the models of his two topologies (Ucs./Pcs./Cs.; id/ego/superego). He was at pains in "Negation" to establish the steps and modalities of this transformation of the drive into meaning and, to this end, he emphasized the role of language, which provides an alternative trajectory for pulsional negativity by demarcating the pathway of thought and the symbolic. In analysis, the coming to awareness of the primal repressed is often manifested by means of the symbol of negation, in which thought is freed from the limitations of repression.

The primal fantasies that are fantasies of origins (observation of the parents' sexual relations, seduction, castration) make up the third panel in the triptych of Freudian thinking on origins. On the one hand, these fantasies have an object that allows infantile sexual curiosity inevitably to confront the question of "where babies come from." On the other, hereditary mnemic traces are organized into scenes developed by narrative scenarios, with these foundations encompassing conceptual forms or "schemes whose fundamental property is their polarizing, organizing, and classifying role," as André Green put it in "Penser l'originaire" (1991; Thinking the primal). Fantasies of origins are anterior to any individual experience; present in the form of phylogenetic mnemic traces, they thus belong not to the historical part of the psyche, but to a transmissible heritage. These schemes, which require a phylogenetic explanation, are justified according to Freud by reality as a missing link in individual psychic experience and are related through it to humanity's archaic past, during which, for example, castration was presumably actually practiced by the father on his sons, as he conjectured in A Phylogenetic Fantasy.

It could be submitted, in conclusion, that the Freudian "ur" transcends the limits of the individual to move toward the history of the species (in a Darwinian perspective) and toward being (in a phenomenological perspective), with the subject appearing, in Lacan's formulation, as a "parlêtre" (being-through-speaking).


See also: Organic repression; Parricide; Primal fantasies; Primary identification; Primitive; Primitive horde; Totem/totemism. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
   * ——. (1916-1917g [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.
   * ——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.
   * ——. (1940a). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
   * ——. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
   * ——. (1985 [1915]). A phylogenetic fantasy: Overview of the transference neuroses (Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Ed.; Axel Hoffer and Peter T. Hoffer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
   * Green, André. (1991). Penser l'originaire. Topique, 49.
   * Kristeva, Julia. (2000). The sense and non-sense of revolt (Jeanine Herman, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1996)
   * Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1966)