A Falklands Epiphany

It is twenty years since what has optimistically been called ‘Britain’s last imperial war’ in the Falkland Islands.

A recent television programme described a moving incident amid the carnage. During the battle for Goose Green, the commanding officer, Lt Col H. Jones, was fatally wounded. Command had to be transferred immediately to another person, which is not always easy. The new comanding officer, Major C. P. B. Keeble, told his story in the TV programme.

When he heard of the death of Major Jones he surveyed the battle scene in despair. The troops were in open ground, without bushes, trees or rocks for cover, under fire from the top of a hill. They were cold and miserable. Air support was lacking because the ship carrying helicopters had been sunk the previous day. It seemed like a hopeless cause and casualties were already high. Chaos threatened.

Shivering with cold and fear, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his mind in turmoil, the new commander walked away from his comrades. On the brink of despair, in his moment of direst need, he sunk to his knees in prayer and offered himself over to God. He was not disappointed. All of a sudden he was imbued with an inner warmth and calm. His mind cleared; a weight was lifted from him. From confusion and distress came clarity and resolve, and he returned to his troops ready to lead them to victory.

I will leave it to others to speculate on the specific meaning of this particular event. (The story loses some of its metaphysical lustre when we learn that the Argentinian positions were smothered with cluster bombs, and that the decision Major Keeble came to was to offer surrender terms to his opposite number, under threat of more bombing. This decision, however, saved many lives.)

In his paper ‘A Religious Experience’ (1927) Freud tells of a similar incident. It is recounted in a letter sent him by an American doctor, critical of Freud’s atheism, who identifies himself as a ‘brother physician’. Like the Falkland’s epiphany, it occurs in a place of mutilated corpses – the dissecting room of a medical school. The doctor suffered a crisis of faith when he caught a glimpse of the “sweet face” of an old woman on a dissecting table. He thereupon rebelled against the divine injustice that had condemned so perfect a creature to suffer and die, and on arriving home he was determined to put aside his former religious observances.

Then something happened. ‘While I was meditating on this matter a voice spoke to my soul that “I should consider the step I was about to take”. My spirit replied to this inner voice by saying, “If I knew of a certainty that Christianity was truth and the Bible was the word of God, then I would accept it’ (SE 21, p169). Then suddenly, without explanation or mediation, the brother physician receives a revelation and accepts the truth of the Bible.

There is of course something astonishing about such a reaction on the part of a grown man who must have seen far worse injustices without questioning his faith, as Freud points out.

Freud’s interpretation is as follows: the old woman’s face reminded the doctor of his beloved mother. The first stage of the Oedipal reaction is then rejection of the father figure, readily associated with the arbitrary will of God. His desire to destroy the father becomes transformed into doubt about the existence of God, and justified as indignation about the ill treatment of a mother figure. “It is of course typical” Freud observes, “for a child to regard what his father does to his mother in sexual intercourse as ill-treatment”. In the end, however, this impulse “succumbs to a powerful countercurrent… No arguments are given to justify God, nor does the doctor say by what indubitable signs God proved his existence to him. Conflict seems to have taken the form of hallucinatory psychosis; inner voices persuaded the doctor to cease his resistance to God.”

Although Freud does not make it explicit in this paper, the inner voices of warning were of course warning of castration. Elsewhere Freud maintains that the primal father, from whom the idea of God is derived, was once in reality a castrating father. In this process of acceptance and submission (a process mirrored in the psychotic delusions of Daniel Schreber), the terrible castrating father becomes an all powerful and protective one. No more sublime experience can a young man undergo! Julia Kristeva describes it as follows:

“This displacement of the oedipal conflict into a religious embrace of the Almighty can occur because religion has knowingly and subtly elaborated an account that makes room for and justifies the hallucination, that makes the hallucination plausible by granting the son, after his period of suffering, the glory that comes of identification with the father. Less crushing a burden than the suffering due to burning desire or abandonment, hallucination can help the subject reestablish a kind of coherence, eccentric or aberrant though it may be. The resulting imaginary identity can sustain the individual and temporarily help him go on living.”

Julia Kristeva, In the beginning was love: Psychoanalysis and Faith

Lt Colonel H Jones was a distant relative of Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest bravery award in the British armed forces.

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