Idols and Egos: psychoanalysis as a Jewish science

Idols and Egos: psychoanalysis as a Jewish science
Rembrandt's "Solomon's Idolatry"

The critique of idolatry in Judaism

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
— Exodus 20:4
"The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths.
Those who make them, and all who trust them shall become like them."
— Psalm 135: 15-18 (NRSV)

The critique of idols and idolatry runs deep in the writings of the Jewish people, with Christianity and Islam also inheriting this attunement to the danger inherent in images. I recently tweeted about how this critique of idolatry demonstrates the deep debt which psychoanalysis owes to the Jewish tradition --

In Psalm 135, the psalmist levels a striking critique of the idols of the surrounding nations by making this claim — "those who make [idols], and all who trust them shall become like them (emphasis mine)."

Up to this point in the Psalm, the singer has been praising Yahweh by pointing out his liberating acts within history, which serves to draw out the contrast with the total impotence of idols crafted from gold and silver. But what does the author mean that those who serve idols will become like the idols they serve?

The prophet Isaiah begins to provide us an answer when he writes in a satirical mode describing a vignette of a man who chops down a tree to kindle a fire for warming himself and baking bread, and then he proceeds to use the remaining wood to carve an idol to which he then bows down in worship (Isaiah 44). This idolator was the one who literally made the idol with his own hands, but he's the one bowing down and worshiping it!

The Christian St. Paul finds himself operating in this same Old Testament mode when he writes in the first chapter of Romans characterizing the problem of idolatry as the worship of the created rather than the creator. Only debasement flows from the inversion wherein the living begin to serve the dead image.

This Jewish critique of idolatry is far more than simple mockery (although it's at least that). It’s advancing a very precise claim — we become like our idols.

But, what’s exactly insightful about this claim? Wouldn’t the idol worshiper readily concede that they do indeed hope to become like the idol they worship? They worship their god precisely because they do wish to become like them in some sense, such as receiving prosperity or fertility. What gives the Jewish claim teeth?

The pagan retort reveals that the Jewish critique contains an implicit premise — we do not take on the attributes of our idol which we think we will. Another way of putting this is that idols are not what we think they are (or rather, what we say they are). There is a necessarily cynical operation of disavowal at work, and this disavowal ultimately generates a self-deception.

Idolators will certainly become like their idols, not in prosperity and fertility, but rather in their characteristic silence and impotence. The Jew observes that what the pagan actually does is fix their gaze on an object, the idol. This material act constitutes the core of what they are doing, even as the worshiper provides the fantastical relation with the god which supplements that material act. The idols’s actual attributes are, among other things, being made of stone, being immobile, being unable to speak, and also being unable to stand itself back up again when it has fallen down.

In short, the act of worshipping an idol puts one in precisely the sort of narcissistic fixation which Lacan describes when he talks about the subject’s enthrallment with the dead object, the ego.

The priests of Dagon and symptom formation

There is a curious tale in 1 Samuel 5 where the Ark of the Covenant has been captured by the Philistines and consequently Yahweh spends some time sojourning in foreign territory. The Philistines naturally place the Ark in the temple of their god Dagon in order to symbolize his victory over their neighbor's god Yahweh.

Things do not go as they expect...

When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they carried it from Ebene′zer to Ashdod; then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.

And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.

But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

— 1 Samuel 5:1-5 (RSV)

When the Philistines discover in the morning (twice!) that their idol has been knocked down, their response is to immediately stand Dagon's image back up again. What sort of mental labor must the idol worshiper perform to be able to see that their god made of stone has been smashed and to respond by standing this god back up again? Is a god who cannot even stand himself up worthy of such service? The need for the object appears to supersede all other considerations.

At the center of the Philistine mythos stands this object, this idol, which serves to bring to closure to their entire cosmology. As such, Dagon represents a profound lack. In psychoanalytic terms, this object stands in for the gap where the entire system breaks down (the master signifier), thus holding the paradigm together while simultaneously masking its essentially meaningless core. Because there is nothing behind this master signifier, this makes Dagon incredibly vulnerable, and thus the idol of Dagon requires a high degree of psychological protection.

The story in 1 Samuel includes an unexpectedly pregnant aside – the author points out how these events provide the genesis of the Philistine priests’ obsessive ritual wherein they omit stepping on the threshold of the temple.

This repetitive physical act closely resembles the formation of a symptom, and precisely the kind which Freud developed psychoanalysis to treat.

In fact, we can follow the process of symptom formation in the case of the priests of Dagon:

  1. Two ideas are brought into a contingent association. In this case, (1) Dagon’s humiliation at hand of Yahweh develops a mental association with (2) the threshold of the temple.

    There is, after all, no necessary connection between these two. Dagon’s severed head very well could have landed anywhere, but the fact of the event happened to be that his head landed on the threshold. Just as a traumatic event may become associated with a particular color of wallpaper, a single word, or the peculiar scent of a certain stew.
  2. This connection having been established, there follows an elision of the trauma of the first notion to the second.

    The proximity of the feelings to the event are far too raw, and thus require a displacement for them to be properly managed by the psychic system. Now, the pain of Dagon’s humiliation has been transferred to the threshold of the temple, successfully isolating those feelings away from the actual event. Freud describes how this functions by employing the analogy of two proximate neural circuits which suddenly experience a short circuit in which the energy from one is re-directed to another adjacent neural pathway.
  3. This pain having been transferred to a nearby notion via association, the subject has been able to successfully reduce the intensity of the sensation in consciousness by attaching the pain to a more manageable notion.

    How to manage the pain of a psychic wound? Transfer that pain to an external object which can be properly handled. By moving the feelings associated with Dagon’ humiliation from the recesses of the mind to the threshold of the temple, the priests gives themselves greater agency over the pain, and can thus implement practices to sequester the wound.
  4. The original event of Dagon’s humiliation can be forgotten altogether.

    This is how the priests’ in the house of Dagon can assiduously perform this stepping ritual to the present day without any understanding of the event which precipitated its origin. The encounter with Dagon’s lack — and implicitly, their own! — can be avoided as long as the ritual remains in place to maintain this subjective structure.

The neurotic symptoms which Freud treated in his patients followed precisely this structure. Freud originally began attempting to relieve these physical symptoms, such as a twitching or phantom pain, by employing hypnosis on his clients. While he observes that this typically brought immediate relief, the symptom would inevitably return in a short while. This lead him to believe that something deeper was going on, and that this could not be undone through a trick of the mind.

Eventually, he came to suspect that the symptom itself contained a clue about the source of the psychic disturbance. However, just like the purely contingent connection between Dagon’s humiliation and the threshold of the temple, there was no deep and meaningful reason why the particular symptom was associated with the patient’s psychic wound. The symptom was a clue which required unraveling, but not necessarily a clue with an obvious connection. However, Freud's method was effective because even though the connection was contingent, the contingent association was nonetheless still very much real.

It’s important to note that the process of symptom formation I outlined above in the case of the Philistine’s is not a conscious operation. Freud’s insight was not simply that physical symptoms had psychic causes, but that these psychic causes were unconscious mental processes which communicated something about the person which they either could not or would not be able to articulate without help. Indeed, Dagon's humilitation could never be successfully forgotten, but only relegated to the Philistine unconscious through the operation of obsessive rituals, where it continues to operate in all aspects of their worship.

The ego as idol

Many analysts after Freud straightforwardly valorized the ego, and often in the service of a straightforward humanist ethos which praised the infinite game of narrative construction and meaning-making. Jacque Lacan's assessment was that, by foregrounding the ego, these emergent psychoanalytic theories not only did a disservice to their patients, but also missed the revolutionary core of Freud's work. To participate in the work which Freud had begun was, for Lacan, not simply to propagate doctrines such as "the unconscious," but rather to step into the paradigm shift which the emergence of these notions inaugurated with respect to the human being. It was to continually repeat Freud's founding gesture of sundering the human being through de-centering consciousness, and subsequently seeking its origin and operations in the dynamic tension of bodies, images, and language.

Lacan's pedagogy offers a different perspective on the Ego by situating it within the realm of the Imaginary, that is, the specular realm where we produce images and their sequential movement via the mechanism of narrative. He distinguishes this realm from the Symbolic, the functioning of language as a system of discrete signifiers which alienates objects by re-placing and re-presenting them within the social realm. The subject which alienates itself in language (exchanges themselves for the signifier 'I') and the phantasmically constructed image of the Ego (my personal mental avatar in the video game which is my life) interfere with one another, both attempting to resolve in different ways the fundamental deadlocks of the Real which seems to lurk menacingly behind both of these realms.

Lacan's theory of the ego (popularized in the digestable "mirror stage") critiques therapeutic methods such as Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis and various "ego psychologies" which attempt to help the subject adjust to life by way of re-narrativization of the self. These therapeutic methods drive after some meaning to the patient’s condition, some deeper cause and insight which they can integrate into the story of their self. Ultimately, these methods leave the patient enthralled by the same phantasmic object - the Ego. To strengthen the patient's Ego is to further enslave them through fixation on a purely fictional object which they take themselves to be. Endlessly interpreting and re-interpreting the Ego brings no liberation, only a narcissistic fun house of shifting images.

I hope that by now the connection between idols and egos is becoming clearer. Just like the Philistine cosmology, every system requires an object, a master signifier, to bring closure to the system. At the center of the system stands a lack. For human beings, this lack at our center is embodied by a contingent object which we form an identification with from a very early age, and this newly-constituted psychic object becomes what we take ourselves to be. This object is not us (we are a living subject!), but this object allows us to simultaneously articulate our lack while also masking that lack, thus providing an effective narrative for what we mean to others (the Other), and consequently, to ourselves.

In closing, we return to the Jewish claim that we become like our idols. What happens when we take ourselves, a subject, to be an object? Inevitably, the messiness, intensity, and complexity of being a subject exceeds the capacity of this object to narrate and symbolize, which leads to either a search for a new object in hopes that a "better" ego will solve our problems or a filing down of our subjectivity (harming ourselves, suppressing certain psychic aspects, even suicide). In this way, the worship of the ego is killing us (rather, we are killing ourselves for its sake). We believe that worshipping the idol will bring us life, power, prosperity, but actually we are subjugating ourselves to something which is dead, thus debasing ourselves further and further from what it means to be a human. Our increasingly elaborate attempts to maintain the cynical fiction of the idol leads us into ever more obsessive rituals and practices of harm, breeding dysfunction in our lives.

Truly, we become like our idols.

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