Totem and Taboo Analysis
by Sigmund Freud

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Totem and Taboo Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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In Totem and Taboo, Freud discusses how the developmental patterns of the psyche shape the course of human civilization. His discussion assumes that the behavior of primitive peoples will illustrate certain aspects of the unconscious, as well as the mechanisms of repression/sublimation, in a clearer manner than the behavior of more civilized peoples. He turns to the almost universally recognized cultural taboo against incest and examines how it structures primitive societies. The focus of his discussion is on the totem system that structures many primitive groups. The totem is a sacred animal which a certain tribe or clan has elected and which its members are forbidden to kill or eat except during certain special rituals. Members of the same totem clan are also prohibited from having sexual relations with one another. The totem is usually passed on to succeeding generations of the tribe through the female line.

The first section, titled “The Savage’s Dread of Incest,” utilizes the works of early ethnographers, such as Andrew Lang’s The Secret of the Totem (1905) and J.G. Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy (1910), as source material. The totem prohibition—the violation of which involves death or social exclusion)—occurs invariably among primitive peoples and covers all manner of familial relations (son/mother, brother/sister, son-in-law/mother-in-law). Psychoanalytic studies, Freud concludes, show that such taboos necessitate the repression of sexual drives and are the major source of neurotic behavior in the individual of modern society.

In the second section of the essay, “Taboo and the Ambivalence of the Emotions,” Freud argues that ambivalence is central to the concept of the taboo. Because it represents powerful desires within the individual that must be repressed, the focus of the taboo is the object of strong attraction; because of the extreme negative consequences of transgression, people also have a strong aversion to the desires that generate the taboo. Thus, the taboo system in primitive cultures affords the individual a kind of ambivalence which reduces any potential neurotic conflict. Taboos in primitive societies are usually institutionalized (ritualized) within a particular cultural pattern through their association with concepts of a demon or a deity. This institutionalization is an example of a defense mechanism known as projection, in which feelings are transferred to external objects. In such primitive cultures in which projection is thus a prominent and codified feature of the society, prohibitions do not necessarily give rise to neuroses, since acceptable and nonacceptable action is openly defined for all members.

In modern European societies in which these prohibited behaviors are often not even publicly acknowledged (much less institutionalized in socially sanctioned cultural patterns), the tendency toward the development of neurotic compulsions is more pronounced because the resultant conflict is internalized. Religion does codify prohibitions against certain sexual behaviors, but religious taboos are often not clearly integrated into secular institutions in European societies. This lack of clearly structured taboos occasions the phenomena of conscience and guilt. Modern society thus produces, Freud concludes, many more neurotic individuals who are caught in an inner conflict of repressed emotions. Thus, according to Freud, civilization is achieved at the price of repression and subsequent neurotic disorder.

Freud also discusses the relationship between totem prohibitions and repression and the psychic phenomenon of Verschiebung, or transference and displacement. Objects or actions that are tangentially or contiguously related to the original prohibition become compulsively restricted or repressed. For Freud, the mechanisms of displacement represent the major modes of operation in the unconscious. The displaced objects cannot be touched or, sometimes, even mentioned without severe consequences. Again,...

(The entire section is 1,365 words.)