28 August, 2006

The Divided Self: Part I

This is the first of a trilogy of posts about the divided self in history and literature, using Freud as he should be used, as a diviner or shamanic guide. I would like the reader to understand these posts as a continuous journey or poem of ideas, and not as an argument—there is, I daresay, little truth here, but also, I hope, not a little of the sublime.


Freud, the great kabbalist of the last century, defined masochism as the two-step redirection of a primary sadistic instinct. Between sadism and masochism is an intermediary stage: 'The desire to torture has turned into self-torture and self-punishment, not into masochism. The active is changed, not into the passive, but into the reflexive, middle voice' ('Instincts and Their Vicissitudes', 1915). In anticipation I note on this page of Strachey's translation an instance of parapraxia or Freudian slip—'is what' has been typographically disordered as 'ihs wat', revealing a playful-violent swat between the two words.

The reader will here notice Freud's grammatical metaphor: he refers to the instinct turned upon itself in terms of the 'middle voice'. Hebrew, like the Greek with which Freud was more familiar, also has a middle voice; this account of Hebrew grammar describes its usage:
The Hebrew middle is often employed for reflexives (doing something to yourself) and reciprocals (doing something to each other). This is why, e.g., Hebrew fight is always in the middle voice.
We see here an uneasy conflation of two types of action: things done to oneself, and things done by two parties to one another. As a result, the word 'fight' sits ambiguously here. It is an interesting choice of example. Even in English, the word causes rudimentary confusion with regard to its agents; contrast 'Odysseus fought with Ajax' to 'Odysseus fought with Ajax against the Trojans'. If we allow ourselves to think like Freud for a moment, or like the kabbalist, we may consider this choice of grammatical example, fight, as a suggestion of similarity—or even identity—between fighting with one another, and fighting with oneself. Physical war, and particularly civil war, has always been a trope of psychological conflict: even as early as the Bhagavad Gita, the war between Pandavas and Kauravas is explicitly revealed as a strife of the soul.

Israel's great war at present is, of course, with Palestine. It's an odd phenomenon: a conflict between two ethnic and religious global diasporas localised within a small geographical space. As such, it has partisans all over the world—two Jewish friends of mine, for instance, have trained with the Israeli cadet force, although neither has actually taken part in the war, thank goodness. But the present conflict also carries echoes of its earlier incarnation, ie. the Biblical struggle for hegemony in Canaan. (I notice linguistic delights, for instance the transformation of the merkabah from Ezekiel's celestial chariot into an Israeli tank.) The Bible presents this struggle as racial—I use the word loosely, to mean 'between groups of unrelated peoples'. The Israelites come from far off (Egypt) to claim the land from various tribes of Canaanites, Philistines and Phoenicians, and later they are at war with Assyrians, Babylonians and so on. There is the suggestion, however, that the Israelites are returning to this land: after all, Jacob had settled here (Gen. 37.1) before repatriating to Egypt at the end of his life. In The Tenth Generation, George Mendenhall offers evidence that the hegemonic struggle for Canaan was in fact not racial but political/religious: a civil war between local despots and a revolutionary proletariat, who massed against their oppressors under the standard of a new god, Yahweh. Norman Gottwald refers to this as the 'retribalization hypothesis'. If Mendenhall is right, ancient Canaan can be seen as divided against itself in a Marxist class-struggle: at a national level, what was portrayed in the Bible as 'fighting with one another' was really 'fighting with oneself', a masochistic instinct.

The schism at Canaan would be played out again and again in Jewish history: with the strife of David against Saul and Absalom against David, with the secession of Jeroboam from the despotism bequeathed by Solomon, with the proletarian revolt of the Maccabees against the corrupt priesthood of Antiochus Epiphanes, and again with the division of scribal and priestly élites in the Temple, finally with the myriad popular movements which fermented during the Roman occupation—culminating in the greatest schism of all, in the Joshua who led his people over the Jordan, and brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down. Israel was no longer a self divided, but would suffer instead the aggressions of a third party.


Gawain said...

Go on, lets see where that is going.

John Emerson said...

OT -- I have updated my Plato / Potato page per your Ronsard find, and am hoping that Steve at Language Hat will solicit further such rhymes.

Simon Holloway said...

I don't understand the assertion that "fight" always occurs within the 'middle voice'. I checked the site that you were linking and, unfortunately, they did not qualify this claim. The Hebrew verb for fight (of root ריב, 'ryb') never occurs within this voice. It is always either a regular active (known as the Qal) or a causative (known as the Hiphil).

Also, when you say that the word causes confusion with regard to its agents in English, is this confusion not caused instead by the word "with"? Compare the following three sentences:

"I ate ice-cream with my friend"
"I ate ice-cream with my pie"
"I ate ice-cream with my spoon"

Aside from these observations, however, your overall point was a thought-provoking one: that wars are as often a battle against oneself as they are against one's enemies. This holds true for Israel today as well, where the Israeli soldier is not just fighting his Arabic enemies; he is also fighting his own Jewish traditions in the ideological assertion that he constitutes a "new" type of Jew.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, OK, you win on the Hebrew. I guess there's even less truth here than I thought. Re: 'with', there is ambiguity in your examples, but not with regard to agents--eating pie with a spoon, with a friend, and with ice-cream are all compatible. But with 'fight', the two examples are not compatible, but opposite: in the one instance, 'with' indicates opposition, in the other, it indicates togetherness. The ambiguity of your example is resolved by the object, but it cannot be in my example, as Odysseus fights 'with' Ajax in each instance. Thus the case of 'fight' seems unique.

Simon Holloway said...

Ah, I see what you're saying. Interesting, but I can't think of another reflexive/reciprocal verb that has the same sort of bivalency (excluding synonymous verbs like "battle" and "wage [war]").

In the meantime, however, I thought of another usage of "with":

"I ate my ice-cream with gusto".


Daniel said...

I think you may have been eating your ice cream with too much gusto. There is a chance that the word for "fight" that they were thinking of was להילחם ("to wage battle"), which is indeed in the reflexive.

Simon Holloway said...

On the contrary, Daniel, להילחם is actually a niph'al infinitive and, hence, a passive. A hithpael, which would give us the Hebraic 'equivalent' of the Greek middle voice would have to be להתלחם with an infixed ת. This form, to the best of my knowledge at least, does not exist.

Nonetheless, you raise an interesting point! The root √לחם occurs in the passive over 150 times in Tanakh - always with an active meaning. Perhaps the only problem, then, is in its purported relationship to the Greek middle voice? Otherwise, Conrad, it looks as though your argument holds up nicely!

Now all I need to do is take issue with you calling Freud a kabbalist...

Simon Holloway said...

My apologies: the hithpael form (להתלחם) does exist. It appears, perhaps amongst other places, in the Palestinian Talmud (pMKat III 81d) and in the Babylonian Talmud (bBMetz 59b). Jastrow compares it with the root √זוג ('to join, marry') which also appears in this stem with an active meaning.