In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Freud and the Taboo

A natural corrollary or perhaps foundational exploratory precursor to the analysis of sex and shame is anthropological and historical–the taboo.

I remember reading Freud ‘ s Totem and Taboo as an undergraduate Comparative Literature student. Thought bits have remained with me in the succeeding decades since that first read and have returned with the advent of my current meditations on sex, shame, arousal and discipline, the text, though ancient by modern standards, warrants another look.

The following excerpt begins a delving deeper into that relationship, which I will continue in fragments as they multiply and mature:

Chapter 2: Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence

2.1

Taboo is a Polynesian word. It is difficult for us to find a translation for it, since the concept connoted by it is one which we no longer possess…

The meaning of taboo, as we see it, diverges in two contrary directions. To us it means, on the one hand, ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’, and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’. The converse of ‘taboo’ in Polynesian isnoa, which means ‘common’ or ‘generally accessible’.

p.75

It may begin to dawn on us the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us as we were inclined to think at first, that the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos and that an explanation of taboo might throw a light upon the obscure origin of our own categorical imperative

2.2

p.86 Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example: why should he be allowed to do what is forbidden to others? Thus he is truly contagious in that every example encourages imitation, and for that reason he himself must be shunned.

But a person who has not violated any taboo may yet be permanently or temporarily taboo because he is in a state which arouses the quality of arousing forbidden desires in others and of awakening a conflict of amibivalence in them… The king or chief arouses envy on account of his priveleges: everyone, perhaps, would like to be a king. Dead men, new-born (page 87) babies and women menstruating or in labour stimulate desires by their special helplessness; a man who has just reached maturity stimulates them by the promise of new enjoyments. For that reason all of these persons and all of these states are taboo, since temptation must be resisted.

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