Freud and the Non-European by Edward W Said

A fruitless journey into the mind of Freud
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The Independent Culture

This book is an event in two senses. First, it is the lecture the Freud Museum in Vienna didn't want to hear. Two years ago it created a huge controversy by withdrawing an invitation to Edward Said to give the Freud Memorial Lecture. The Freud Museum in London stepped in and invited Said instead; his lecture has now been published as Freud and the Non-European. It is an interesting history but, sadly, there's hardly anything on the controversy in the book.

This is an event in another sense. Freud has been strangely marginal in Said's work as critic and cultural thinker. There are no references in Orientalism, two trivial ones in Culture and Imperialism and virtually nothing in three collections of essays and interviews last year. The exception is Beginnings, Said's first work of literary theory, but discussion tends to be scattered through the book. This lecture, then, is his first sustained engagement with Freud.

For Said there are several different Freuds. In Beginnings, in 1975, there was the French Freud of literary theory, imported via Lacan, Althusser and Derrida. There is no trace of that here. What we get instead, at least in the beginning, is a post-colonialist critique of Freud the Eurocentric. "Freud's awareness of other cultures" has a "peculiarly 'western' stamp". His world was "not tremendously bothered" by "the problems of the Other". All of this is evidently unforgivable these days and you start to fear it is going to be called off as a mismatch: Said and Fanon 1, Freud 0.

Fortunately, Said's lecture takes an interesting turn. It looks at Freud's last major book, Moses and Monotheism, as an example of "late style", comparable with late Beethoven. Both figures, argues Said, move towards a new complexity. In Moses we see Freud, the Jewish intellectual, "probing his own relationship with his ancient faith through the history and identity of its founder". The tone is not one of mellow resolution, but of "intransigence and a sort of irascible transgressiveness", "a willingness to let irreconcilable elements of the work remain as they are: episodic, fragmentary, unfinished".

Moses and Monotheism has long been regarded as Freud's problem work. There are no easy resolutions like the great case histories, and it is not a major theoretical statement like The Interpretation of Dreams. The editors of the standard edition write of its "eccentricity", and Peter Gay, Freud's biographer, calls it "untidy" and "peculiar".

For Said these problems are the book's - and Freud's - strengths. It is Freud's refusal to accept a simplistic notion of Jewishness or any collective identity that Said finds admirable. He goes on to compare Freud's ideas with cruder notions in Israel today.

Said's argument boils down to this: Freud was a complicated and subtle thinker, and Israeli attitudes to Palestinians leave much to be desired. It's depressingly unoriginal and, together with a terrible, sometimes offensive, introduction by Christopher Bollas, makes for a disappointing read. Perhaps it explains why Said has never properly engaged with Freud. Too often, he has imposed his own agenda: literary theory, post-colonialism, now "late style". It's a puzzling - and revealing - failure.