The Great Satan

After the trauma of September 11, many thoughtful Americans asked themselves the question: ‘Why do they hate us so much?’

Answers were usually given in terms of US foreign policy, economic hegemony, or American cultural influence throughout the world.

Freud would not have discounted these factors but he may have felt that such analyses do not reveal the essential level of irrational hate which lies at the heart of such events as September 11. The fundamentalists saw America as the ‘Great Satan’, and for the religious fanatics it became a holy duty to kill as many manifestations of this behemoth as possible.

Given his abiding interest in religion, Freud may have turned his attention to a more thorough investigation of the idea of ‘Satan’. For Freud, hate and love are inseparable, and ambivalence lies at the heart of every human relationship.

This is nowhere more clearly shown than in the relation between father and son. In his magnificent paper “A Seventeenth Century Demonological Neurosis” (1923) Freud examines the story of Christoph Haizmann, a painter who, Faust-like, made a pact with the Devil from which he was unable to extricate himself.

The written pact, Haizmann’s diary, and paintings depicting his encounters with the Evil Demon still survive, and these documents became the basis for Freud’s analysis.

As usual, in his self-effacing and modest way, Freud establishes the limits of his own investigative domain before embarking on his exploration.

“If we are right in regarding our painter’s bond with the Devil as a neurotic phantasy, there is no need for any further apology for considering it psychoanalytically …. But for anyone who does not believe in psychoanalysis – or, for that matter, in the Devil – must be left to make what he can of the painter’s case, whether he is able to furnish an explanation of his own or whether he sees nothing in it that needs explaining.”

His chief focus is on the notion of the Devil, and the series of paintings left by Haizmann serve as an unparalleled source of evidence.

“We therefore come back to our hypothesis that the Devil with whom the painter signed the bond was a direct substitute for his father. And this is borne out by the shape in which the Devil first appeared to him – as an honest elderly citizen with a brown beard, dressed in a red cloak and leaning with his right hand on a stick, with a black dog beside him. Later on his appearance grows more and more terrifying – more mythological, one might say. He is equipped with horns, eagle’s claws and bat’s wings. Finally he appears in the chapel as a flying dragon…

“It does indeed sound strange that the Devil should be chosen as a substitute for a loved father. But this is only so at first sight, for we know a good many things which lessen our surprise. To begin with, we know that God is a father-substitute; or, more correctly, that he is an exalted father; or, yet again, that he is a copy of a father as he is seen and experienced in childhood – by individuals in their own childhood and by mankind in its prehistory as the father of the primitive and primal horde. Later on in life the individual sees his father as something different and lesser. But the ideational image belonging to his childhood is preserved and becomes merged with the inherited memory traces of the primal father to form the individual’s idea of God. We also know, from the secret life of the individual which analysis uncovers, that his relation to his father was perhaps ambivalent from the outset, or, at any rate, soon became so. That is to say, it contained two sets of emotional impulses that were opposed to each other: it contains not only impulses of an affectionate and submissive nature, but also hostile and defiant ones. It is our view that the same ambivalence governs the relations of mankind to its Deity. The unresolved conflict between, on the one hand, a longing for the father and, on the other, a fear of him and a son’s defiance of him, has furnished us with an explanation of important characteristics of religion and decisive vicissitudes in it.”

“Concerning the Evil Demon, we know that he is regarded as the antithesis of God and yet is very close to him in his nature…. In the earliest ages of religion God himself still possessed all the terrifying features which were afterwards combined to form a counterpart of him. (SE19, p85-86)

“We have here an example of the process, with which we are familiar, by which an idea that has a contradictory – an ambivalent – content becomes divided into two sharply contrasted opposites. The contradictions in the original nature of God are, however, a reflection of the ambivalence which governs the relation of the individual to his personal father. If the benevolent and righteous God is a substitute for his father, it is not to be wondered at that his hostile attitude to his father, too, which is one of hating and fearing him and of making complaints against him, should have come to expression in the creation of Satan. Thus the father, it seems, is the individual prototype of both God and the Devil.”

Freud later notes the female sexual characteristics which Haizmann adds to his paintings of the Devil, including large pendulous breasts. This is unusual in depictions of the Devil.

“But why should his father, after being reduced to the status of a Devil, bear this physical mark of a woman? The feature seems at first hard to interpret; but soon we find two explanations which compete with each other without being mutually exclusive. A boy’s feminine attitude to his father undergoes repression as soon as he understands that his rivalry with a woman for his father’s love has as a precondition the loss of his own male genitals – in other words, castration. Repudiation of the feminine attitude is thus the result of a revolt against castration. It regularly finds its strongest expression in the converse phantasy of castrating the father, of turning him into a woman.”

Here we see why an attack on the phallic World Trade Centre could have such an emotional impact. America becomes the Great Satan as a result of the processes of splitting and projection that are so much at the heart of the human condition.

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