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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365

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, such behavior occurs in primitive societies but is often institutionalized as ritual and serves therefore as a more consciously reflected aspect of the culture.

The third section of Freud’s essay bears the title “Animism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thought.” Animism is the primitive belief that the inanimate world is populated by spirits or demons. This belief, as well as the various types of primitive magic, is an example of the transference of unconscious elements of the psyche onto the external world. In these aspects of the primitive mind—myth, magic, and ritual—Freud sees the “omnipotence of the thought,” or the power of the Id and the force of the unconscious in the human personality. The Id does not distinguish between real and unreal but operates only on the strength of its libidinal energy. With these ideas, Freud thus presents a theory of religion that suggests that the religious impulse is not an aspect of some transcendent part of human nature but rather a mere projection of a dimension of the neurotic self. Freud’s intellectual position is that of a confirmed atheist. The concept of a loving “Father God” is an infantile remnant of the unconscious childhood wish to be protected. This “magical” thinking is, according to Freud, apparent in the compulsive behavior patterns of certain neurotics.

In the final section of Totem and Taboo, “The Infantile Recurrence of Totemism,” Freud returns to a discussion of the riddle of totemism and its relationship to the incest taboo. He examines theories concerning the sociological and psychological origins of totemism. At this point, Freud begins what is probably the most famous part of the Totem and Taboo essay, that is, his ideas concerning the Oedipus complex and its relationship to the incest taboo. He again assumes that the psychological state of primitive man corresponds to that of the developing child. He therefore discusses several case studies of animal phobia in young male children as parallels to the totem experience. He finds that these case studies reveal Oedipal conflicts and asserts that the totem animal is a substitute for the father figure.

The conditions of the totem taboo represent primitive re-creations of the Oedipal situation, in which the male child covets his mother and lives in fearful respect of his father. The periodic ritual sacrifice and consumption of the totem animal that occur in most tribes—a symbolic transformation of parricide—represent a structured and institutionalized means of releasing the repressed anxiety and guilt that remains in the unconscious. The primitive man thereby both slays and becomes one (through eating during the totem feast) with the figure of power (that is, the god/father). This sacrifice thus also has strong religious meaning.

Freud discusses Charles Darwin’s concept of the primal horde with its violent competition for power and position—the survival of the fittest—in relation to the Oedipal situation and the development of the totem taboo. One might think here of certain animal groups, such as wolves or certain apes, in which there is a rudimentary social ranking order. The dominant male of the group—the strongest and most aggressive—defeats in battle the younger males and thereby lays first claim to the females as well as to the group’s food resources. As the dominant male ages and weakens, he is killed by one of the younger males. That parallels the Oedipal situation in humans—except in the latter case, the son’s guilt over the slaying or displacement of the father becomes a major issue. Human groups, Freud asserts, developed the totemic system as a symbolic means of sublimating, or defusing, the guilt experienced by the son. That constituted the first step toward human social organizations such as government and religion. These institutions are based on the psychological displacement of libidinal desire and the guilt that accompanies prohibited urges. The sense of guilt and conscience continues as a safeguard against the eruption of these violent desires.

Since the psychological origins of religious belief are a favorite topic of Freud, he elaborates upon this theme in Totem and Taboo. He discusses the meaning of totem sacrifice and its relationship to the constellation of son and father. The original animal sacrifices of the totem were symbolic displacements of the Oedipal wish to remove the father and have been replicated in various forms of religious worship. The totem feast sublimated this desire and its guilt in ritual sacrifices, thereby establishing a sense of a religious brotherhood and community. This original sense of the sacred sacrifice was preserved in ancient cultural forms such as Greek tragedy as well as in the rites of Christianity.

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