* * *
As an afterword to this discussion of Sontag’s relationship to Freud and his thought, I wanted to reflect for a moment on a more productive usage of Freudian theory than Sontag offers. Sontag is right to reject the simplifying of Freud’s ideas and their appropriation by the status quo. Further, Sontag’s own rejection of Freud is wrapped up with her turning away from married life and the work (or even co-work) she did with ex-husband Philip Rieff (in his book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist), which did in essence reduce art to manifest and latent content, with the ability of the critic/analyst being to uncover the latent content at the expense of that on the surface and her experience of the work of art in all of its complexity. Edward Said in his brief, late lecture Freud and the Non-European (2002) maps a more productive and continuing engagement with Freud’s ideas. Following on the chapter in his early book Beginnings: Intention and Method (1985) that explicates Freud’s writerly method in Interpretation of Dreams, and his Modern Language Association presidential address “Humanism and Heroism” (published in PMLA in May 2000), Said has provided another path for the use of Freud in these later ages.
In Freud and the Non-European, Said turns to Freud’s last book Moses and Monotheism as a model for the kinds of analysis of fractured identity that has become pivotal in twenty-first century life and nationhood. Freud’s work in general and his last work in particular become, in Said’s phrasing, “an overturner and a re-mapper of accepted or settled geographies and genealogies.” Freud’s methods and texts become a way of (re)mapping the boundaries between selves and histories; Said reflects that Freud
lends himself especially to rereading in different contexts [as all great literature does], since his work is all about how life history offers itself by recollection, research and reflection to endless structuring and restructuring, in both the individual and the collective sense.
Said’s concern, as an Palestinian exile, centers on Freud's reading of his Jewish identity, which since Freud's death has become monolithic and exclusionary toward the Other in powerful and violent ways. Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, because it sees the roots of Judaism and monotheism in Moses’s identity as a Egyptian before he becomes the leader of the Israeli contingent out of Egyptian slavery, locates the Other (in this case, the Egyptian and the origins of monotheism in relation to the worship of Aton, the sun god, under the ruler of Amenhotep IV) at the heart of the Jewish identity. Thus Freud’s fracturing of identity in his model of psychoanalysis and his suggestion that nationalist identity is also inherently fractured and made other than itself from its very origins provide a model for accepting the other rather than rejecting it with violence.
Said maps how this understanding of identity can actually lead to peace and peaceful coexistence between radically different individuals, groups, and nations. Although many want to belong to identifiable and definable groups, or (in Said’s terms) want “desperately” to run in “nationalist or religious herds,” the cost of this kind of group-thinking and belonging often leads to violence toward and annihilation of the Other and a non-recognition that the Other is a part of the self. Freud provides us with another model, an “exemplification” in the work itself “of the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity…there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one, and truly one, Identity” that would subject all others to it. In this Freudian model, the narrative of history can be seen in all of its complexity, “being always that which comes after and, all too often, either overrides or represses the flaw” inherent in any seemingly unitary notion of identity. Freud in Said’s view allows us to “speak to other besieged identities”; for
identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered—and later, perhaps, even triumphed.
Said presents a model for reading Freud that has some of the same liberatory effects that Sontag found in rejecting Freud to embrace the (surface of the) artwork itself. He presents his readers with a model of identity via Freud’s late work that allows the Other to be recognized even in the most unitary nationalist and religious traditions, because the Other is always there anyway, within and without. Divorced from Sontag’s own early Freud scholarship and not tangled in Rieff’s sympathetic and discerning apologetics for much of Freud’s thought on literature, art, and culture, at least in Rieff's earliest books, Said’s own consideration in Freud and the Non-European would have engaged Sontag’s own deeply held desires for a model of psychoanalysis that provides complexity and an open-ended, engaged, immersive thought for society in the twenty-first century.