May 8, 1995
3801 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008-4530
D. Georgopoulos, M.D.
GW Univ Med. Ctr.
Washington, DC 20037
Dear Dr. Georgopoulos:
Some psychological explanations of anti-Semitism rely on content analyses of anti-Semitic stereotypes and investigations into the corresponding psychodynamics, unconscious wishes, and conflicts of individuals or groups of individuals who hold such stereotypes. 1/
Greenspan points out that “every dynamic drama must take place in the context of a particular structure or set of structures.” “A Conversation with Stanley Greenspan.” The American Psychoanalyst 28 (3): 25-27, at 26 (1994). I am drawn to the tentative hypothesis that anti-Semitism may have a structural component, or perhaps, more precisely, that structural concepts may serve as a useful tool in attempting to explain certain aspects of anti-Semitism. Viewed as an outcome of specific structural phenomena, the hostility of the anti-Semite to the Jew may be conceptualized as a defensive reaction by an ego at a particular level of development, an ego that has specific capacities and limitations; for such an ego, the Jew may pose--or symbolize the cause of--an intolerable “ego strain” that threatens ego integrity and, therefore, must be defended against.
Just as multiple perspective psychoanalysis involves an examination of the capacities and limitations of intrapsychic structures at different levels of ego development as well as the content of intrapsychic phenomena, I propose that a full understanding of anti-Semitism may require an examination of psychological structures and capacities as well as the nature of the anti-Semite's wishes, conflicts, and prohibitions.
In arriving at these observations concerning the possible structural determinants of anti-Semitism, I am struck by the fact that an important feature of anti-Semitism in terms of the concept of anti-Semitic stereotyping, namely the charge that Jews “intellectualize,” parallels an important structural concern: cognitive/perceptual development and the related ability of the ego to metabolize and represent conflict intellectually rather than act out conflict. Thus, one of the most important of anti-Semitic stereotypes, namely that Jews intellectualize, actually corresponds to an essential concern of the structural perspective: the development of the ego’s capacity to abstract feeling and intellectually represent wishes and conflicts.
In the eye of the anti-Semite, according to Theodore Rubin, “the Jew is seen as always being in pursuit of intellectual goals. He is always involved in debating and establishing dialectical gray areas. . . . He is seen, of course, as a passive agent who deprecates masculine violence,” Rubin, T.I. Anti-Antisemitism A Disease of the Mind (New York Continuum, 1990).
Psychoanalysis itself has been attacked as a product of Jewish intellectualization. Wortis relates the following colloquy he had with Freud:
[Wortis]: “I said, ‘the Jews are over intellectualized; it was Jung who said, for example, that psychoanalysis bears the mark of this Jewish over-intellectualization.’
‘So much the better for psychoanalysis then!’ said Freud.” Wortis, J. Fragments of an Analysis with Freud, at 146 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954).
Turning anti-Semitic moral valuations on their head, Silvano Arieti (like Freud) acknowledges the central role of intellectual pursuits and abstract ideation among tradition-minded Jews, but characterizes Jewish intellectualization as a positive feature of Jewish culture. "The cultivation of reading and the study of the Bible fostered a love for literacy, education, and higher forms of knowledge in the Jews. When the love for education is well established, it is relatively easy to make the transition from an exclusive study of religious books to studies including other disciplines as well. Familiarity with the abstract ideation of the Jewish religion (abstract God, rejection of imagery, focus on ethics) made Jews particularly suited for the abstractions of mathematical and scientific thinking (emphasis added).” Arieti, S. Creativity The Magic Synthesis, at 334 (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
Of particular significance to this discussion are the following observations of George Steiner. It is Judaism’s exclusive reliance on abstract (as opposed to imagistic) thinking, according to Steiner, that arouses the non-Jew’s hostility to the Jew. Steiner’s thesis that the non-Jew experiences the Jewish concept of an abstract God as an intolerable strain points to a structural perspective that may shed light on an aspect of anti-Semitism. Steiner writes:
What we must recapture to mind, as nakedly as we can, is the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea. Historians of religion tell us that the emergence of the concept of the Mosaic God is a unique fact in human experience, that a genuinely comparable notion sprang up at no other place or time. The abruptness of the Mosaic revelation, the finality of the creed at Sinai, tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit.
The demands made of the mind are, like God's name, unspeakable. Brain and conscience are commanded to vest belief, obedience, love in an abstraction purer, more inaccessible to ordinary sense than is the highest of mathematics. The God of the Torah not only prohibits the making of images to represent Him. He does not allow imagining. His attributes are, as Schoenberg concisely expressed them in Moses und Aron.
Unvorstellbar, weil unsichtbar;
Inconceivable because invisible;
No fiercer exigence has ever pressed on the human spirit, with its compulsive, organically determined bias towards image, towards figured presence. How many human beings have ever been capable, could be capable of, housing in themselves an inconceivable omnipresence? To all but a very few the Mosaic God has been from the outset, even when passionately invoked, an immeasurable Absence, or a metaphor modulating downward to the natural sphere of poetic, imagistic approximation. But the exaction stays in force-immense, relentless. It hammers at human consciousness, demanding that it transcend itself, that it reach out into a light of understanding so pure that it is itself blinding. . . .
Historically, the requirements of absolute monotheism proved all but intolerable. The Old Testament is a record of mutiny, of spasmodic but repeated reversions to the old gods, whom the hand can touch and the imagination house. Pauline Christianity found a useful solution. While retaining something of the idiom and centralized symbolic lineaments of monotheism, it allowed scope for the pluralistic, pictorial needs of the psyche. Be it in their Trinitarian aspects, in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons, or in their vividly material realization of God the Father, of Christ, of Mary, the Christian churches have, with very rare exceptions, been a hybrid of monotheistic ideals and polytheistic practices. That has been their suppleness and syncretic strength. The single, unimaginable -- rigorously speaking, "unthinkable" -- God of the Decalogue has nothing to do with the threefold, thoroughly visualized pantheon of the churches.” Steiner, G. In Bluebeard's Castle, 37-39 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
What Steiner is really saying amounts to the application of a structural perspective to the elucidation of anti-Semitism. That peculiar and, for some, intolerable sense of unease that Steiner identifies as lying at the heart of the imagistic thinker's reaction to the Jewish conception of God, is, from a structural perspective, the very sense of unease experienced by the immature ego when it is forced to process and assimilate the abstract ideation that is readily accommodated by the differentiated mature ego. For the immature ego, abstract ideation constitutes an unmetabolizable mass to be defended against and warded off, just as, applying Steiner's model, the intolerant imagistic thinker is compelled to defend against and ward off the Jew, himself a symbol of abstraction incarnate.
Overbroad generalizations pose problems and contradictions. To the extent that the foregoing observations suggest that persons with a highly developed capacity for abstract thinking will tend not to be anti-Semitic or that Jews who have a poor capacity for abstract thinking will escape anti-Semitic hostility presents an absurdity. Certainly, there are adepts of abstract thought – mathematicians and even psychoanalysts (Masud Khan, to cite just one example) – who have been anti-Semitic.
I am, nonetheless, intrigued by a certain type of individual in whom the expression of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes is coupled with a poor capacity for abstract thinking, a tendency to routinely disparage matters relating to intellect, and who—if he were a psychiatrist—would tend to have a marked incapacity to deal with the more abstract aspects of psychoanalytic thinking (such as the concept of the unconscious), and an inability to maintain an attitude of psychoanalytic abstinence sufficient to permit the patient to engage in psychoanalytic free association.
In such an individual might not the prominent anti-Semitic stereotypes be attributable to the individual's ego strength and cognitive style, which prominently features an impaired ability to process abstract ideation? And would not such a relationship between anti-Semitic stereotyping and ego strength/cognitive functioning support a possible relationship between anti-Semitism and structural phenomena?
In an enlightened age the open expression of anti-Semitism is disfavored, yet, for the anti-Semite, advances in human knowledge have simply contributed to his armamentarium of scientific rationalizations for age-old stereotypes and anti-Semitic hostility. Thus, the polite, but anti-Semitic, psychiatrist may repeatedly tell his Jewish patient that all his social difficulties stem from the fact that the patient relies too heavily on the ego defense of intellectualization; that the the patient's life has become a laboratory 2/; that the patient talks too fast; that degrading anti-Semitic stereotyping, if coupled with an acknowledgment of the patient's “brilliance” must make the patient feel good; and that the patient's concerns about anti-Semitism, even though they are fact-based, are simply a paranoid projection of the patient's own aggressive wishes vis-a-vis the outside world and are, furthermore, “improbable.”
There is a paradox of ego functioning relating to the fact that a certain feature of the psychotically-regressed ego bears a facial resemblance to an aspect of the creative ego and its unusual level of ego strength. The weakened ego of the paranoiac is able to accommodate the most bizarre ideas and will assign the ideas a truth value despite the lack of any corroborating objective evidence. The ego strength of the normal ego will seek corroboration in external reality for ideas, and reject ideas that do not conform to remembered past experience or present sense impressions. Paradoxically, one feature of the creative ego is its unusual ability to form and hold, for an indefinite period and even in the absence of confirming objective evidence, theories and hypotheses derived solely from creative intuition. For the noncreative ego, the unproven hypotheses of the scientist may at times be as disquieting as the bizarre suspicions of the paranoiac.
But for the weak or impoverished, non-psychotic, ego a special sense of strain or wariness may arise in the face of any ideation that is not readily confirmed by past experience or present sense impression, whether the ideas are derived from other persons' creative intuition or are the product of a psychotic disturbance. There is a tendency by some such individuals to transform their ego weakness into a virtue; thus, one may find among some such persons an inappropriate readiness to label speculative minds as sick or paranoid. In fact, such persons couldn't formulate or hold a meaningful speculative or abstract idea even if they tried -- their weak egos would not permit it.
Psychiatrists with such ego weakness may exhibit a special inability to cope with the more abstract concepts of psychoanalysis, such as an unseen entity, the unconscious, that directs and determines conscious thinking, an entity as intangible as the Jewish conception of God.
In summary, one mark of extreme ego weakness is the inability to ward off unsubstantiated ideas, while, paradoxically, one aspect of hypernormal ego strength is the ability to hold an unsubstantiated idea for an indefinite period of time. For the weak but normal ego, any idea not confirmed by the senses—whether pathological, fantasy, or simply speculative or abstract—may pose an ego strain and may stimulate a defensive reaction.
A similar paradox of ego functioning relates to the fact that a certain feature of schizophrenic or manic thinking bears a facial resemblance to a certain manifestation of ego strength. An important feature of schizophrenic thinking is its rambling, discursive style—termed “loose associations.” The schizophrenic's inability to hold a train of thought and his tendency to become bogged down in circumstantiality, or insignificant details, reflects his ego weakness. Paradoxically, the rambling thought patterns of the schizophrenic have a facial resemblance to the discursive style of psychoanalytic free association. The non-psychotic psychoanalytic patient's ability to lose himself in a consciously non-directed train of thought, is, however—unlike the schizophrenic's inability to hold a coherent train of thought—a product of the patient's ego strength. Indeed, Freud believed that the patient's development of an uninhibited ability to associate freely was a significant accomplishment that signaled the successful completion of the analysis.
Correspondingly, the analyst's ability to follow a patient's associations—a taxing enterprise—is a measure of the analyst's own ego strength. The ego-impoverished psychiatrist may lack an ability to maintain an attitude of psychoanalytic abstinence sufficient to permit the patient to engage in psychoanalytic free association; the patient's rambling discourse, all too suggestive of schizophrenic thinking, may pose an unbearable strain on the psychiatrist's ego resources. Further, a belief in the value of free association presupposes a belief in the existence of a dynamic unconscious: the belief that the patient's associations are determined by an unseen entity, the unconscious, and that each associated idea has a latent meaning that is inferable by analysis of the context of associations. But, as stated above, the concept of the unconscious may pose an intolerable strain for psychiatrists at a particular level of structural development.
A psychiatrist's inability to tolerate a patient's attempts at free association and his defensive need to mislabel the association of ideas as products of manic or schizophrenic thinking may in some way parallel the defensive need of the anti-Semite to label Judaism a disease.
1/ This letter is dedicated to John E. Mack, M.D.
2/ Freud believed that "the ability of psychoanalysis to alleviate human suffering is contingent upon its being conducted strictly as a scientific experiment." Malcolm, J. Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, at 139 (Vintage: 1983). Malcolm reports the following conversation with a Jewish psychoanalyst: "It's unhealthy work you do," I said. "You mean like dealing with bacteria in a bacteriological laboratory?" "If you like. You get infected yourself." [The analyst nodded in agreement.] "You get infected yourself." Id. at 113.