The other Moses

Issue: 106

John Rose

A review of Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (Verso, 2004), £8

This masterpiece was first delivered as a lecture to a spellbound audience at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Edward Said, Palestine’s greatest intellectual, has taken the final and troubled essay, Moses and Monotheism, of one of modern Judaism’s greatest intellectuals, Sigmund Freud, and, as it were, flicked the switch that releases Freud’s Moses as the ghost to haunt that distortion of modern Judaism we call Zionism.

And this cannot be dismissed as an Edward Said interpretation. Here we have not the least fascinating aspect of this essay. Edward Said’s postmodernism had moved on, dare it be said, before he died, to a dialectical plane. The reader’s historical and cultural context and the writer’s historical and cultural context may provide two distinctive meanings, but an objective historical reality does connect them. Said describes a power to Freud’s writing which allowed him ‘to instigate new thought as well as to illuminate situations that he himself might never have dreamed of’. In other words it is Freud’s Moses, not Said’s interpretation of him, that casts a shadow on the way modern Israel’s creation depended upon the exclusion of the non-European ‘other’.

Said also celebrates Freud’s Spatstill, ‘late style’, and compares it to Beethoven’s late works. I sense we are going to read a lot more about this concept but we cannot do it justice here. One of Edward Said’s last essays was devoted to it in the London Review of Books. Suffice to say it describes a release of creative albeit rather disorganised power as ‘old age’ beckons (I wonder if it can apply to ageing organisations?). A penetrating nugget of insight, like a genie released to assist the storming of barricades.

The crux of Freud’s argument is that Moses was an Egyptian. Obviously a non- European; less obviously a non-Jew. Repeat: the founder of the Jewish religion was not a Jew. His monotheism was derived from the great Egyptian pharaonic tradition associated with Akhenaton. Freud ‘grants that Jews eliminated sun- worship…but further undercuts Judaic originality by noting that circumcision was Egyptian…and that the Levites… were Moses’s Egyptian followers’.

Freud doesn’t much like his discovery. He hasn’t developed it ‘gladly or carelessly’— in Freud’s own words ‘especially by one belonging to that people’. He can already hear the Nazi jackboot and he wants to identify with his people. Still, it’s the ‘truth’, and because of that, says Freud, it’s more important than what are ‘supposed to be [our] national interests’.

Here was implicit prophecy but Freud didn’t know it. He did not live to see Israel ‘countervene, repress…cancel [his] carefully maintained opening out of Jewish identity towards its non-Jewish background. The complex layers of the past [were] eliminated by official Israel.

‘In excavating the archaeology of Jewish identity, Freud insisted that it did not begin with itself…but rather with the other…’

A last point. Edward Said calls Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth, one of the greatest books in defence of the revolutionary violence forced on the non- European ‘other’, not least by Zionism, ‘Freud’s most disputatious heir’. A further incentive to buy this remarkable little book is to discover why.