The Stain of Universality

In Totem and Taboo, Freud went full length to reconstruct a mythic history that the primordial crime of parricide, the collective murder of the primordial father by sons, makes all sons involved in guilt, consequently resulting in symbolic compliance of the prohibition of incest with their mothers.1 Although this “origin” of the Oedipus complex is usually dismissed as illusionary, nonetheless we can see similar constructive forces in religions. For the Jewish religious tradition, the spectral history is something fairly similar, the murder of Moses, presented in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.2 In Christianity, it is the death of Christ that opens up the symbolic debt of guilt and thus makes Christianity universal. The forgiveness from Christ in advance not only does not free people from guilt, but this gesture of pardon culpabilizes people more deeply. Throughout these events of the formation of universality, it is the primordial crime that founds the universal law, as a retroactive gesture to repress the very founding violent crime.

Among these various configurations of primordial crime and law, however, Judaism has a unique position of not confessing the crime. In Catholicism, through externalization, people are able to get rid of the guilt (rituals of forgiving sins). Morality was controlled by churches, an external symbol and embodiment of power, which later then people ceased to follow and internalized. In Protestantism, although salvation is regarded as inaccessible for our finite, nonetheless people live their secular life passionately as if they were chosen. The sting of uncertainty was transformed, disguised into liberalism values, which people can achieve without too much anxiety. In Jewish tradition, the religion of the Other proper, however, what we bear witness to is its passionate stubbornness to preserve the terrifying dimension of religion. In the common understanding, pagan gods were anthropomorphic, which the Jewish tradition thoroughly de-anthropomorphized Divinity through its iconoclasm. The Jewish God remains a faceless obscene Other, a properly inhuman other. The Divine Mosaic Law is also experienced as something imposed externally: the Mosaic Law is brought from Mount Sinai, which is radically opposite to the liberalism or humanism conscience that emerges “naturally and organically” as our self-realization.

No wonder Judaism has unprecedented vitality, it does not confess-symbolize-internalize the repressed founding crime. They did not give up the haunting ghost lurking in the dark side of history. On the other hand, is not Christianity the religion of confession? The tremendous and unbearable guilt brought by the murder of Christ, the son of God, is neutralized in confession. They consequently betray the traumatic dimension of the primordial crime by coming to terms with it. Therefore, the universality with Judaism is able to sustain itself precisely because of its passionate attachment to their particular singular historical founding event. As we demonstrate with duty and enjoyment above, the relationship between universality and particularity is not the commonplace that one has to sacrifice its particularity for universality. Rather, the stain of unacknowledged particularity is the generative power inherent in the universality. If we wipe off the stain of particularity, the price to pay is that the universality regresses to a lifeless, empty, in other words, abstract dead form of universality.

Thus it is justified to say that the criticisms against Freud that the myths he endeavored to articulate did not actually happen miss the point. In some way, the spectral event that has not actually happen is more real than the reality. It is the essential foundation of reality with which reality can make sense. Consequently, we should distinguish between the history and its shadowy Other. While the history constitutes the substance of a community (the set of actual events and their corresponding narratives makes up the tradition and ideology of a community), the spectral history of crimes has to be repressed, foreclosed, and unacknowledged so that it can effectively support the substantial side of history and tradition. Or to put in Lacanian terminology, the spectral history does not ex-ist – it cannot be externalized into the symbolic (written) tradition of the community. Precisely because it cannot ex-ist, it continues to persist, that is to say, it continues to be the repressed myth that haunts the community in the shadow.

In psychoanalysis, this spectral event is called fundamental fantasy,3 the fantasy that is prior to our perception of the reality as such and sustains our existence and engagement in the world. This “pathological” fantasy cannot be easily labeled as subjective, since its very existence creates the frame through which things can be comprehended objectively. I am tempted to make a risky analogy: is not Kant’s transcendental illusion an exemplary case of fundamental fantasy? For Kant, when we illegitimately apply understanding to things beyond our possible experience, transcendental illusion emerges – for example, the universe in its totality. In contrary to the skepticism that due to our limitation we can never be sure about the things-in-themselves and the illusion of the universe in totality should be renounced, Kant’s argument is that this illusion is necessary for our experience to retain consistency. Despite that I can only perceive part of the reality, I have to necessarily assume the reality-in-itself so that my experience does not fall into meaningless fragments. According to Kant, transcendental illusion is not simply logical or empirical illusions but is “inseparable from human reason, and which, even after its deceptiveness has been exposed, will not cease to play tricks with reason”.4

  1. Freud, Totem and Taboo.↩︎
  2. Freud, Moses and Monotheism.↩︎
  3. Lacan, Transference, 104.↩︎
  4. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 386-7.↩︎