Essay: "'Moses...Moses' - Anne Baxter in DeMille's The Ten Commandments" by Mathias B. Freese

Freese is the author of The i Tetralogy, Down to a Sunless Sea and This Mobius Strip of Ifs.  Visit his site.


© 2011 Mathias B. Freese


I read Freud’s Moses and Monotheism for about the third or fourth time in my life. Perhaps it is a weak repetition compulsion of my own. At moments reading this book of three essays (Parts I and II were originally published in German in the psychoanalytic journal, Imago in 1937 and the completed book in 1939) is like cracking walnuts in your mouth. It is the kind of book that tells you how uninformed you are about most things, including yourself. Of course, that is the given part of us we know the least. The skinny on the book, considering it was written about 73 years ago, is that the archaeological and sociological information Freud drew upon is no longer valid as good science. However, it is a fabulous psychoanalytic ride.


Even with my background as an analytically trained psychotherapist, there are paragraphs beyond my brainpan’s capacity to fathom. After all, perhaps geniuses write to themselves, which is a good idea for all writers, I feel.  First me, then you. In any case I am drawing very old and my cerebrum has puckered here and there. With Freud you persevere, always waiting for the next surprising insight. Instinctual renunciation, return of the repressed, latency, guilt, obsessional neurosis are but a few of the concepts Freud delves into with the master juggler’s hand trying to express what is second nature to him but conceptually difficult to us mere students. It is a most challenging book but worth each page as he holds you conceptually by the hand, if not throat – and then presto, pulls out the rabbit from his top hat. You don’t read Freud. Rather, you examine each sentence as if parsing the Talmud.


Essentially Freud writes in his last years in a comprehensive way about how behaviors in each of us can be applied to the species collectively. What he had learned from his analysands at Berggasse 19 he now shared. Applying his psychoanalytic process to society at large, his artist’s palette, it is fascinating to observe how a significant amount of what he reveals does seem applicable if not basically true. Always injudicious with my “idol,” giving him a wide berth to do his thing, enjoying how he messes with our minds – and feelings, I root for Siggy. He wrote somewhere that he wanted to disturb the sleep of mankind! Oh, does he.


I was trained in analytic psychotherapy, the mother’s milk of psychoanalysis, but my personality was ill-equipped to deal with or master the Newtonian concepts of Freud, the 19th century model of how energy, drive (instinct), and cathexis (attachment) work. I moved more into an expressive and interpersonal way of dealing with clients; however, the immersion in analytic thinking has proven invaluable, especially with my own writing.


In fact, centuries hence Freud might best be remembered more for his critique and observations about mankind as a whole, and perhaps honored more as a philosopher than a healer. Indeed, most of his cases were not successful, but his brave examination of his failures immeasurably added to the vast depository of psychological insight he was creating.


Like or dislike him, like Darwin, he will not go away. His Moses book guts religion and applies a rigorous spanking to Christianity on levels it rarely examines: the profound Oedipal struggle between the father religion (Judaism) and the son religion (guess who), and what the son needs to do unconsciously. Does anti-Semitism stem from all this? It can be argued yes to a degree. The now-defeated Christian thinking that Christianity was an improvement over Judaism, that the New Testament superseded the Old Testament, smacks of this unconscious upheaval. And Judaism gets its licks as well, for Jews had murdered the first Moses, according to Freud, and repressed that until centuries later the return of the repressed emerged. Basically Freud believed religion was an illusion and if pursued inexorably led to delusion. And he thought and said as much (see The Future of an Illusion), that a man or woman was not fully developed or matured until they had given up the obsessional neurosis of a god in the sky. “Religion is a collective neurosis,” he wrote.


As an atheist I am psychologically free in ways I cannot even describe. The believers of late smack their smarmy lips as they go on to prattle about how poor Christopher Hitchens will now see their reality. Garbage in, garbage out! In one of his essays Bertrand Russell described religion as the dragon at the gate.


Freud occasionally pauses to patiently inform the reader, like gathering up ewes in the pasture, urging him to go along for a while with his suppositions and hypotheses, and before you know it he has safely herded you into a pen. He posits in his book that there were two Moseses and that one was murdered by the early tribes under his control.  In fact (Jews at the time were not pleased with this conjecture), the first Moses was an Egyptian!  Freud argues that this primordial deed was repressed, an unconscious act, for suppression is a conscious choice; that centuries later that which was denied returned and a second Moses revived the earlier traditional teachings of the first Moses. Here Freud analogizes to the psychoanalytic concept of latency, that period of time several years after five or so which later emerges if not erupts as we move into adolescence.  It is as if each one us is told to go to “sleep,” only to awaken much later on. In short, sexual feelings and other psychological issues lie dormant unconsciously and repressed only to reemerge years later. I don’t know what recent research reveals, but at this point in the book Freud wonders if our closest animal friend, the chimpanzee or the great ape, experiences a kind of latency as well.


So an analytic concept long verified by therapists with their clients and over the decades is applied to an entire people’s traditional history. The book is a fascinating read whether you buy Freud’s thesis or not. Indeed, it was originally called The Man Moses, A Historical Novel. One biographer feels it would have been better as a novel. Nevertheless, at least you begin to fathom an important analytic concept or two or three about each of us, especially the latency period so critical for parents to fathom as they experience their children. And Freud’s magisterial ability to apply his findings about individual human beings to the species at large is telling and illuminating.


In the past few weeks or months, I cannot say, I have had reminiscences about the years before I was ten, places I played in, streets I rode my bike on, early childhood chums, neighborhoods I prowled about, very dim and early relationships with other young people who came and went, flitted about me and then were gone.  Iin one case, a young girl I played with and then I realized she had moved away. Some of these memories cannot be confirmed by the person who experienced them. I am simply not sure they were events. Are they imaginings? I am sure that my level of awareness was dim, hazy as I could not survey all about me in ways that ended in conclusions or observations.  As if I was a primordial sea creature swimming onto the beach, I looked about, sensing but not realizing or seeing in a really conscious way. I could not explain my world. I cannot do so now. I was in it but not fully aware. I mildly experienced who I was. I did not experience myself, only sensed, as if being jabbed by the needles of everyday occurrences. You understand, don’t you? Think back.


When Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed whispers “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, I can grasp its gravitas so much better now at this age. The sled had so much meaning for him, condensed meaning, the condensation of symbols we experience in many dreams like archaeological layers. Indeed, Freud had compared himself to an archaeologist unearthing all kinds of relics, if not memories of things past.  Consider the time in which Kane enjoyed his sled, the time in which he is sold by his mother; his ineffective father and the capitalistic banker Thatcher, all conspiring to bring about a personal abandonment he would profoundly feel all his life.


In one of the most unattended to lines in Citizen Kane, Susan Alexander mentions her mother in passing and Kane responds in so many words, sotto voce, that he knows about mothers. All is in those words. And I gag now as I write that, for I too remember seeing the movie as a young child, all alone in the local theater (my babysitter) and I wonder today if I was not touched by my own feelings of being abandoned on levels I could not possible articulate but that I felt within my own sunless sea. I must have incorporated the loneliness and the devastating abandonment of Kane for there were such feelings, I hesitate here, within my own relationship, if that was what it was, with my mother. In all my childhood, in my entire upbringing, my mother never read a fairy tale to me, any book at all. It is a bewildering puzzlement that I feel as an old man which is not amenable to reason. Why? That is the rub, and the perverse “enchantment” about the memory.


And so of late I am reflecting and struggling to re-empathize with a host of significant memories, like bees swarming in a honeycomb. I endeavor to string them on a necklace of affect and effect. Imagining and reimagining the meanings they have for me, it is an old cliche that as we near our end we turn back to our beginnings, thus, Rosebud. What observation might Freud interject here! And I have emerged with a few opening sentences that might begin my next book:


I was fucking abandoned when born. So what! And who cares? I am unfinished man. Dive…Delve…Descend.









All work is copyrighted property of Mathias B. Freese.










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