Poor Mohamed!

How enviable, to those of us who are poor in faith, do those enquirers seem who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Being! … Their affective life is regulated in accordance with their distance from the ideal at any moment. When they approach to it – at their perihelion, as it were – they are brought high satisfaction; when, at their aphelion, they have become remote from it, the punishment is severe unpleasure.

Moses and Monotheism, SE 23, p122

On learning that Mohamed Atta spent his last days before September 11 insulting topless waitresses in cocktail bars and drinking heavily, the American public were disgusted at the hypocrisy of a man who claimed to be a devout Muslim.

His sympathisers took a different view, saying: “Poor Mohamed! Look what he had to put up with in order to carry out his holy purpose.” Both views have something to recommend them.

Stories in which holy men yield to temptation (often in the ‘wilderness’, although Florida might be the next best thing), before confronting the object of temptation and overcoming it, are common in all the major religions. They mirror in some ways the simple narratives of Oedipal triumph in which the hero wins a prize (usually a sexual prize) after defeating a terrifying adversary.

‘Religious’ narratives are another kind of Oedipal drama in which the love of the father is the ultimate prize. They follow the form: temptation – transgression – punishment – reconciliation. Between the last two moments of this narrative process a splitting of the father-figure takes place. The hero confronts the ‘bad’ father and is reconciled to the ‘good’ father.

Although this process has largely been ignored in post-Freudian psychoanalysis – such has been the mania with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mother – I am happy to say that Hollywood has no such qualms. For instance, Chris Connor, the boy hero of one of the ‘Casper’ films, finds himself in conflict with his property developer father over a ramshackle house he is trying to demolish (the house is clearly a female symbol). Chris’s father hires a fanatical ex-commando to plant explosives in the house. Once it is known that Chris himself is trapped in the building his father tries to stop the bombing, only to find that his alter ego has run amok and, like the deranged pilot in Dr. Strangelove, refuses to follow a countermanding order.

There ensues a struggle between the hateful murderous father and the loving protective father which, for Chris’s sake, the loving father has to win. Since it is a children’s comedy we can guess the outcome. Chris’s reward for his brush with death is a kiss from the girl he has admired from afar, and reconciliation to the formerly murderous father.

For Freud, the temptation to which little boys are exposed is usually masturbation, an activity which takes on its perilous qualities by being suffused with Oedipal fantasies and, in the mind of the child, prohibited by father-figures, real or imagined.

In his paper ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’, Freud points out that gambling and alcoholism can take the place of masturbation, and one wonders how Mohamed Atta’s visits to nightclubs were preparing him psychologically for his hateful mission. The targets chosen were clearly symbolic and, I would suggest, loved and hated in equal measure. Through his ‘hypocritical’ behaviour, it is precisely the narrative of temptation – transgression – punishment – reconciliation that he is enacting in reality.

This process is thwart with danger, but the rewards are considerable. If alienation from the father brings danger and despair, reconciliation promises a state of bliss. Strange to think that at the moment of self immolation, he felt himself saved.

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