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Speaking the UnspeakableReligion, Misogyny, and the Uncanny Mother in Freud's Cultural Texts$

Diane Jonte-Pace

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780520226005

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520226005.001.0001

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The Sources of Anti-semitism

The Sources of Anti-semitism

Circumcision, Abjection, and the Uncanny Mother

(p.99) Chapter 4 The Sources of Anti-semitism
Speaking the Unspeakable

Diane Jonte-Pace

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter examines Freud's comments on the entanglement of anti-Semitism with misogyny. Freud's description of castration anxiety and circumcision as central to both the fear of the Jew and the fear of the mother leads to a set of speculations on the “abject” as the source of both xenophobia and misogyny. Freud's explanation of anti-Semitism in terms of an association of circumcision and castration seems relatively self-evident: it follows the metonymic logic of pars pro toto. Abjection accompanies all religious structurings and reappears, to be worked out in a new guise, at the time of their collapse (1982: 17). Anti-Semitism is precisely a contemporary mask for abjection. By locating the origins of anti-Semitism and misogyny in castration anxiety, Freud developed a theory in which the practice of circumcision is central to the hostility toward Jews.

Keywords:   anti-Semitisim, uncanny mother, abjection, misogyny, circumcision

Freud offered several analyses of the sources of anti-Semitism. In most of these, he assumed Oedipal conflicts to be at the root of anti-Semitic prejudices, focusing in particular on the castration fears evoked by circumcision. As we have seen in other contexts, however, Freud's analyses of castration anxiety often slip beyond the boundaries of the Oedipal framework. In this chapter, I examine Freud's interpretations of anti-Semitism, finding evidence of the counterthesis in his analysis of a common source for misogyny and anti-Semitism. This chapter turns from the Heimlichkeit of Jewish identity for the Jew to the Unheimlichkeit, the uncanniness or “Otherness” of Jewishness for the anti-Semite.

Deeper Motives for Anti-semitism

To speak of or to speak to the Bʼnai Bʼrith, the group to whom Freud spoke in his 1915 and 1926 addresses, was to evoke the male Jewish body: “Bʼnai Bʼrith” means “sons of the covenant.” The sign of the covenant, of course, is circumcision. The name “Bʼnai Bʼrith” “evoked, for fin de siècle Viennese Jews, the image of circumcision” (Gilman 1993: 25). While Freud's seventieth-birthday address made circumcision part of the familiar, heimlich, common identity of male Jews, a later (p.100) text addressed to a broader audience describes circumcision explicitly as unheimlich, “uncanny.” This later text, written in the 1930s, is Moses and Monotheism.

Although Moses and Monotheism is most explicitly an analysis of the history and character of the Jews, it is also an analysis of anti-Semitism. Jacques Le Rider notes that “some of the most interesting passages in Moses and Monotheism are devoted to outlining a theory of anti-semitism” (1993: 237). Freud himself, in a letter to Arnold Zweig, indicated that his purpose in the book was not only to analyze the development of the Jewish people, but also to understand anti-Semitism: “The starting point of my work is familiar to you … faced with the new persecutions, one asks oneself again how the Jews have come to be what they are and why they have attracted this undying hatred” (E. Freud 1970: 91). Freud answers in Moses and Monotheism that anti-Semitism is surely due to ancient and unconscious fears and fantasies: “The deeper motives for hatred of the Jews are rooted in the remotest past ages; they operate from the unconscious of the peoples.”1 Freud proposes two “deeper motives” for anti-Semitism, noting an expectation of resistance to his analysis of these motives: “I am prepared to find that at first they will not seem credible” (SE 23: 91).

The first motive, he suggests, is a kind of jealous rage over the chosenness of the Jews: “I venture to assert that jealousy of the people which declared itself the first born, favorite child of God the Father, has not yet been surmounted among other peoples even today. It is as though they had thought there was truth in the claim.” This resentment, he goes on, reveals itself, upon further inspection, to be a kind of hostility toward an enforced monotheism in which hatred of Jews disguises a hostility toward Christianity among peoples whose religious sentiment is close to a “barbarous polytheism” (SE 23: 91). The second motive Freud enumerates is castration anxiety. Circumcision, he states, is uncanny, unheimlich. It evokes fears of castration: “Among the customs by which the Jews made themselves separate, that of circumcision has made a disagreeable, uncanny impression, which is to be explained, (p.101) no doubt, by its recalling the dreaded castration and along with it a portion of the primeval past which is gladly forgotten” (SE 23: 91).

Freud's explanation of anti-Semitism in terms of an association of circumcision and castration seems relatively self-evident: it follows the metonymic logic of pars pro toto. While circumcision is “canny” to the Jew because it is the shared mark of a community, as the 1926 Bʼnai Bʼrith text implies, it is “uncanny” to the anti-Semite, as the 1930s text argues, because of castration anxiety. But this story of the (un)canny impression left by circumcision is not so simple. One must ask why Freud was “prepared to find” that his speculations would “not seem credible.” Since he had explained anti-Semitism in terms of circumcision and castration anxiety in earlier texts (in footnotes to his Little Hans case and his essay on Leonardo), his expectation of an incredulous response requires explanation. A closer examination of these texts will show that the incompletely developed counterthesis emerging between the lines played a central role in producing his expectation of resistance to each of these references to circumcision and anti-Semitism.2

In a discussion of a childhood memory of Leonardo da Vinci's, the memory which gives Freud's 1910 essay its name, Freud recounts Leonardo's account of lying in his cradle when a bird—a vulture, in Freud's reading—descended, “opened my mouth with its tail and struck me many times with its tail against my lips” (SE 11: 82). In the process of interpreting, or misinterpreting, this memory (for Freud's interpretation of the bird as a vulture, we now know, was based, in part, on a mistranslation of Leonardo's text), Freud traces a complex set of associations. His journey takes the reader from Leonardo's memories of sucking at the breast of the mother (87), to homosexual fantasies of fellatio (86), to “virgin birth” or parthenogenesis among vultures (88–89), to androgynous Egyptian mother goddesses (88, 94), to the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, to Leonardo's illegitimate birth (90), to phallic mothers, and finally to male infantile sexual theories about female genitals (95). Here we find the familiar Freudian analysis (p.102) of the castration anxiety emerging when the male child “observes the genitals of little girls” (95). Freud's speculations on the male child's reaction to the sight of the genitals of the female child led him to an analysis of the source of misogyny, and—once again—to a reference to the Unheimlichkeit of the female genitals: “That the penis could be missing strikes him as an uncanny and intolerable idea … under the influence of this threat of castration …. Henceforth he will tremble for his masculinity, but at the same time he will despise the unhappy creatures on whom the cruel punishment has, as he supposes, already fallen” (95).3 In other words, he suggests, in an argument similar to the one discussed earlier, that the origins of misogyny lie in castration anxiety and that the female genitals are uncanny to the male.

Freud returned to this passage nearly a decade later, in 1919, when he inserted a footnote linking misogyny and castration anxiety with anti-Semitism. “The conclusion strikes me as inescapable that here we may also trace one of the roots of the anti-semitism which appears with such elemental force and finds such irrational expression among the nations of the west. Circumcision is unconsciously equated with castration” (SE 11: 95–96 n. 1). Thus, a text on misogyny and the uncanniness of the female genitals is reread. In the new reading, this uncanniness becomes a clue to the riddle of anti-Semitism.

Why Freud added the footnote on anti-Semitism in 1919, or why he deferred an analysis of the intersections of anti-Semitism and misogyny for nearly a decade, represents one of the riddles of the text on Leonardo, particularly because he had made precisely the same connections a year prior to the publication of the Leonardo essay in a famous footnote to the 1909 Little Hans case history, “An Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy.” Freud discusses in the 1909 text Little Hans's “enlightenment” (Aufklärung) regarding the fact that “women really do not possess a widdler (wiwimacher).” Hans's castration complex was aroused, he explains there: the child feared that “they could take his own widdler away and, as it were, make him into a woman” (SE 10:36). Adding a lengthy footnote to this text in 1909, Freud wrote, (p.103)

I cannot interrupt the discussion so far as to demonstrate the typical character of the unconscious train of thought which I think there is here reason for attributing to Little Hans. The castration complex is the deepest unconscious root of anti-semitism; for even in the nursery little boys hear that a Jew has something cut off his penis—a piece of his penis, they think—and this gives them a right to despise Jews. And there is no stronger unconscious root for the sense of superiority over women. (SE 10: 36 n. 1)

In this footnote, Freud goes on to comment on the association of Jews and women within the perspective of a “neurotic” and “infantile complex,” arguing that the neurotic fear of Jews and women can be traced to the castration complex.

Clear enough, so far. But a troubling passage in the center of this footnote exposes some “deeper motives” on Freud's part, raising questions about the internalization of anti-Semitism in the psyche of the Jew. Freud describes Otto Weininger's infamous Sex and Character as an illustration of the infantile and neurotic association of Jews and women. He states:

Weininger (the young philosopher who, highly gifted but sexually deranged, committed suicide after producing his remarkable book, Geschlecht und Charakter [1903]), in a chapter that attracted much attention, treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults. Being a neurotic, Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint, what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex. (SE 10: 36 n. 1, parentheses and brackets in the original)

This passage has generated a large body of analytic literature in recent years. (See, for example, Le Rider 1993, Oilman 1993, Boyarin 1994, 1997, Oeller 1997, 1999.) There are major differences in the interpretations of these scholars, but several have emphasized the fact that (p.104) Weininger and Little Hans were Jews, although they are not so identified in Freud's text. The Jewish identity of the figures who stand as illustrations of castration anxiety, misogyny, and anti-Semitism in this footnote, in other words, is obscured. Hans and Weininger both suffered from self-disgust or deep ambivalence about their Jewishness, an ambivalence which, these scholars argue, Freud shared, and which he endeavored to hide. Boyarin states, “by occluding the fact of Hans's Jewishness and by obscuring the role of his own here, Freud is hiding something” (1994: 37). Again we find that Jewishness and circumcision are not only Heimlich, but also unheimlich. Boyarin finds in these remarks not only a theory of misogyny and anti-Semitism, but also an analysis of Jewish self-contempt: “We have in Freud's note on Little Hans not only an anatomy of misogyny and anti-semitism—both read as products of the unconscious—but also of Jewish self-contempt, also read as a sort of inevitability” (Boyarin 1997: 237).

In a strikingly original analysis of these texts, Geller exposes the complex source of this footnote in Freud's symbolically adoptive relation to “Little Hans,” now known to be Herbert Graf, the son of Freud's friend and colleague Max Graf. Geller shows that the child's father, concerned about the effects of an increasingly anti-Semitic Vienna, had considered raising his son as a Christian and that Freud had advised against this. Max Graf recalled that Freud had said to him: “If you do not let your son grow up as a Jew … you will deprive him of those sources of energy which cannot be replaced by anything else …. Do not deprive him of that advantage” (quoted in Geller 1999: 361–62). Geller proposes that as a consequence of Freud's advice, Graf did have his son circumcised and that the footnoted associations Freud would make between Little Hans's castration fear and circumcision are motivated by a set of complex factors: “By advising Max Graf upon the birth of his son, Freud had (god)fathered Herbert as a Jew; he acted as the kvatter (godfather) who hands the child over to the mohel (ritual circumciser) if not indeed assuming the paternal role of circumciser and binding Herbert to the tradition” (Geller 1999: 364). But Freud's paternal (p.105) relation to Little Hans, unmentioned in the case study, is only one hidden factor recovered by Geller in this complex “family romance.” Desperately desiring that Little Hans would become a strong, masculine Jew, Freud obscured his concern that Hans's behavior expressed homosexual fantasies. Thus, Geller shows, the footnote is deeply overdetermined: the Jewishness of the homosexual anti-Semite Weininger is suppressed, just as is the Jewishness of Little Hans, the child with homosexually tinged fantasies.

Other displacements are evident here, as well. Clearly, there is something missing or something deferred in Freud's speculations about anti-Semitism, misogyny, and circumcision anxiety in the Leonardo and Little Hans essays. Each text makes the insight marginal or liminal by relegating it to a footnote.4 The Leonardo text makes the insight doubly marginal through a decade-long postponement, or, in Freud's terminology, Nachträglichkeit (deferral of action), before inscribing the thought in the published writings. The Little Hans text obscures the insight further by hiding or failing to acknowledge the Jewish identity and the potential homosexuality of Little Hans and the Jewish identity of the homosexual Weininger, not to mention the homosexual desires of Freud himself (Geller 1999, Boyarin 1997). In both of these passages, the analysis of misogyny as castration anxiety is close to—yet distant from—the analysis of anti-Semitism. The riddle of anti-Semitism and the riddle of misogyny are closely linked through circumcision and castration anxiety. Freud's footnoting of these associations and his decade-long delay of the extratextual reference serve at the same time to acknowledge and to defer an association of the woman, the Jew, and the homosexual uncannily haunting the texts.5

In Moses and Monotheism, the text with which we began this discussion of the uncanniness of circumcision, Freud located his analysis of anti-Semitism centrally within the text itself, rather than in footnotes, but he excised what was earlier central to his extratextual analysis: misogyny. While in “Leonardo” and the Little Hans case he used circumcision and castration anxiety to speculate on the origins of hostility (p.106) both to Jews and to women, he omitted any explicit reference to women in Moses and Monotheism. Yet, although the passage on circumcision in Moses and Monotheism does not refer to misogyny, an analysis of the misogynist ideologies of female inferiority and difference lie below the surface, pointing toward the incompletely articulated counterthesis.

Freud stated in Moses and Monotheism that circumcision itself is a leitfossil, a leading, guiding, or characteristic fossil, a “key-fossil” in Strachey's translation, which provides hints to the solution to the riddle of anti-Semitism and the riddle of Judaism. Freud wrote, for example, “we may once again call on the evidence afforded by circumcision, which has repeatedly been of help to us, like, as it were, a key-fossil” (SE 23: 39; cf. Geller 1993). Freud's use of the term leitfossil in relation to circumcision is not insignificant. It resonates with the analysis of the uncanny we discussed in chapters 2 and 3. As we saw earlier, the uncanny often involves the fear of being buried alive—not unlike the ancient fossils, evidence of the earth's living past, which had so fascinated the nineteenth-century European world. If circumcision is a fossil, then Judaism, to Freud, is a fossil as well: “From the ‘triumph of Christianity’ … the Jewish religion was to some extent a fossil” (SE 23: 88). The entire tradition of Judaism, he implies, has been uncannily buried alive (Geller 1993: 54). Again Freud's metaphors expose unconscious chains of associations linking circumcision and the uncanny. Metaphors related to the uncanny even appear in Freud's comments on the book itself. In the process of writing Moses and Monotheism, Freud noted self-reflexively, the book “tormented me like an unlaid ghost” (SE 23: 103), refusing, as it were, a premature, uncanny burial.

As noted in a previous chapter, the final pages of Freud's essay “The Uncanny” described three sites of the uncanny. The sense of the uncanny, he states, emerges with the thought of castration, the thought of being buried alive, and the thought of the mother's genitals. In Moses and Monotheism, in his explanation of anti-Semitism as a form of castration anxiety, he alludes to precisely the same set of images he had earlier used to illustrate the uncanny: he describes a “disagreeable, uncanny (p.107) impression” created by circumcision, he explains that uncanny impression as a result of the fear of “the dreaded castration,” and in a distorted image of burial, he refers to circumcision as a “fossil” and to castration as “a portion of the primeval past which is gladly forgotten.”

In a distorted or deferred way, then, Freud associated woman and Jew or misogyny and anti-Semitism in Moses and Monotheism in a set of fragmentary remarks which not only reflect the racist and sexist ideologies of his world, the “traumatic knowledge” of the cultural equation of woman and Jew (Geller 1993: 52, 60), but also point toward an incomplete analysis of the sources of anti-Semitism in association with misogyny.

Thus, what Freud feared would “not seem credible” in his analysis of anti-Semitism was something that even he was able to articulate only in oblique references: an association of both Judaism and anti-Semitism with the uncanny and its accompaniments, that is, the ideology of dangerous and deadly female or maternal difference. Freud moved toward but stopped short of a full articulation of a theory in which anti-Semitism, misogyny, and circumcision/castration anxiety reside in the space of the unspeakable, uncanny body of the mother. Although Freud showed the way hesitantly toward this territory, Julia Kristeva has mapped the terrain with greater precision. A Kristevan reading of Judaism, anti-Semitism, and circumcision in terms of the “abject” therefore exposes more clearly the counterthesis that Freud was attempting to articulate.

A Kristevan Cartography of the Abject

Before discussing Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject, it may be useful to return to Freud's analysis of the “deeper motives” for anti-Semitism. As noted above, Freud proposed two sources of anti-Semitism: one was the “uncanny impression” made by circumcision, the other was the jealous rage over the chosenness of the Jews. Lest this second source be interpreted as a kind of sibling rivalry, Freud quickly elaborated that (p.108) this jealousy is a deflection of a deeper resentment against the enforced imposition of the monotheistic law. Contrary to typical expectations, he explained, anti-Semitism in its current forms is not a particularly or uniquely Christian pathology. Rather, noting that fascism opposes all forms of monotheism, he suggested that anti-Semitism is a kind of infantile anti-Christianism in which hostility toward Christianity is displaced, deflected, or projected outward as hostility toward Judaism:

We must not forget that all those peoples who excel today in their hatred of Jews became Christians only in late historic times, often driven to it by bloody coercion. It might be said that they are all “misbaptized”. They have been left, under a thin veneer of Christianity, what their ancestors were, who worshipped a barbarous polytheism. They have not got over a grudge against the new religion which was imposed on them; but they have displaced the grudge on to the source from which Christianity reached them …. Their hatred of Jews is at bottom a hatred of Christians, and we need not be surprised that in the German National-Socialist revolution this intimate relation between the two monotheist religions finds such a clear expression in the hostile treatment of both of them. (SE 23: 91–92)

Although he was rarely favorably disposed toward Christianity, Freud suggests here that the antistructural rage against the authority of God the Father and the chosenness of the Jews evident in National Socialism cannot be simply described as a Christian form of jealousy over the relation of a father toward the first born and best loved. In spite of the fact that Moses and Monotheism challenges Roman Catholic Christianity—see, for example, Freud's remarks on his hesitation about publishing the earliest versions of the text for fear of exposing psychoanalysis to the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church (SE 23: 55–57)—he does not simply hold Christianity responsible for anti-Semitism. Instead, he emphasizes the fact that Aryan ideology expresses a form of hostility toward monotheism in both its Christian and Jewish forms.

(p.109) Freud's discussion of the “deeper motives” for anti-Semitism is remarkably similar to the analysis of anti-Semitism developed by the French-Bulgarian post-structuralist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror. Kristeva devotes nearly half of Powers of Horror to the problem of anti-Semitism. Two aspects of her analysis are particularly striking. First, without any explicit reference to Moses and Monotheism, Kristeva develops an analysis that closely parallels Freud's. Second, her analysis exposes a theoretical perspective that lies between the lines and under the surface of Freud's text: the psychological proximity of misogyny to anti-Semitism (Jonte-Pace 1997a, 1999b). Using the texts of the twentieth-century French novelist and pamphleteer Louis-Ferdinand Celine as exemplary and paradigmatic anti-Semitic documents, Kristeva develops an interpretation of the psychological foundations of anti-Semitism. She argues that Celine's anti-Semitic discourses expose the skeletal framework of the social and political realities of the time: his words “present us with harsh X-rays of given areas of social and political experience” (1982: 177).

Like Freud, who discovered two “deeper motives,” Kristeva discovers “two common features” (178) in anti-Semitism. The first is a rage against Judaism interpreted as an embodiment of the institutional structures of law, mastery, and society—the “register” which she, following Lacan, calls “Mastery” or the “Symbolic.” This, she writes, is a “rage against the Symbolic, represented here by religious, para-religious, and moral establishments … it culminates in what Celine hallucinates and knows to be their foundation and forebear—Jewish monotheism” (178).

This “hatred of Mastery,” Kristeva argues, embodies a rage against the religion of the father and the law: “At this far point of ‘delirium’ the anti-Semite unveils his denied but fierce belief in the Absolute of Jewish Religion as religion of the Father and of the Law; the anti-Semite is its possessed servant … who provides a contrario proof of monotheistic power of which he becomes the symptom, the failure, the envier” (184–85). Thus, anti-Semitism can be traced in part to a resistance to monotheistic mastery or a rage against the law of the father. Kristeva (p.110) adds that twentieth-century anti-Semitism cannot be understood as a Christian pathology: to the anti-Semite, it is “Judeo-Christian monotheism” that represents “a fulfillment of religion as sacred horror” (210). Christianity is resisted, rejected, and raged against, alongside Judaism, as another form of “the Symbolic.” Thus Kristeva and Freud, in arguments remarkably similar, both emphasize in anti-Semitism the rage and resentment evoked by the one God and His law. Both emphasize the significance of a paradoxical anti-Christianism alongside the hatred of the Jew.

Kristeva's deeper interest, however, is in the second feature of anti-Semitic ideology, a fantasy of a “Jewish threat” emanating from what is excluded from mastery or the symbolic. She states, “the second is the attempt to substitute another Law for the constraining and frustrating symbolic one” (178). She continues, “the image of the Jew will concentrate negated love become hatred for Mastery on the one hand, and on the other and jointly, desire for what mastery cuts out: weakness, the joying substance, sex tinged with femininity and death” (180). This is the territory of what Kristeva calls “the abject.”

The “abject” is the central focus of The Powers of Horror. The notion of the “abject” provides a foundation for Kristeva's theory of religion. She describes a primitive terror of maternal engulfment that threatens the boundaries of the self almost before those boundaries come into being. As the Kristevan theorist Cleo Kearns explains, abjection “afflicts a troubled and unformed entity that knows itself as an I only through the sense of having been thrown out or repulsed from an other” (Kearns 1993: 58). The abject can be experienced in the loathing one feels for rotting food, filth, or excrement, defilement, muck, pus, and decay. It is not unrelated to the fear of death or of the corpse. It is the psychological foundation, Kristeva suggests, for religious concepts of sin, impurity, and pollution. To speak of it is to begin to speak of the unspeakable. It is the other side of the sacred: “As Abjection—So the Sacred” (1982: 17).

According to Kristeva, “Abjection accompanies all religious structurings (p.111) and reappears, to be worked out in a new guise, at the time of their collapse” (1982: 17). Anti-Semitism is precisely this: a contemporary mask for abjection. Describing the Aryan mentality, she asks:

Is not this dreaded Jew an object of the Father, a piece of waste, his wife as it were, an abjection? … an unbearable conjoining of the One and the Other, of Law and Jouissance … anti-Semitic fantasy relegates that object to the place of the abject. The Jew: a conjunction of waste and object of desire, of corpse and life, fecality and pleasure … becomes the feminine exalted to the point of mastery. (185)

She links this explicitly with the maternal: “‘something maternal’ happens to bear upon the uncertainty that I call abjection” (208).

Kristeva extends this analysis further, arguing that the Jew “precipitates” these fantasies, that in a certain respect, the anti-Semite “is not mistaken” (186), that in anti-Semitic discourse, “there emerge a few striking words of truth” (177): “The anti-Semite is not mistaken. Jewish monotheism is not only the most rigorous application of Unicity of the Law and the Symbolic; it is also the one that wears with the greatest assurance, but like a lining, the mark of maternal, feminine, or pagan substance … a scription on the limits of identity comes face to face with abjection” (186, italics in the original).

Her remarks must not be misinterpreted. By no means does she condone anti-Semitism. Rather, she attempts to analyze and understand the psychological dynamics by which Jewish monotheism enrages and horrifies, the mechanisms by which the law and what the law excludes elicit rage and horror. Kristeva's attempt to gaze in the face of horror is remarkably similar to Freud's unwaveringly analytic stance in relation to the horror or Grauen he analyzes in so many of the texts examined here. Most significantly, both Freud and Kristeva (Kristeva more openly than Freud) point toward a theory of anti-Semitism in close proximity to the body of the mother. Kristeva's theory of the abject and Freud's counterthesis are closely related. Both are attempts to speak the unspeakable.

(p.112) For Kristeva, religious rituals are attempts to establish boundaries around the abject protecting “the Symbolic” from the pollution or chaos embodied by the abject. In her analysis, rituals maintain and repair broken or threatened barriers between the sacred, safe, clean (propre) world of the symbolic, and the polluted, unclean territory of the abject, which is closely associated with the feminine and maternal. Thus, rituals attempt to differentiate an abject, maternal chaos from an orderly, symbolic cosmos.

Not only does Kristeva link anti-Semitism specifically with misogyny through an analysis of the abjection underlying xenophobia, but she also suggests that circumcision itself, to the Jew as well as to the anti-Semite, involves unconscious fears of the unnameable abject. In Powers of Horror, she introduces the problem of phobia by recalling Freud's analysis of Little Hans. Describing Little Hans's fear of horses, she asks what Hans really fears. Freud, she notes, “detects the fear of castration” (34). This, she argues is “astonishingly true, and not quite so” (34). The phobia of horses becomes a “hieroglyph that condenses all fears … a metaphor of want as such” (34–35).

Kristeva's chapter titles lay out the itinerary followed by her analysis of these fears condensed in Little Hans's phobia. “Something to be Scared Of” (32) leads “From Filth to Defilement” (56), that is, from castration fear, to the horror of the abject. From the abject and its source in the terror of maternal engulfment, the analysis arrives at the “Semiotics of Biblical Abomination” (90), via the intersection of “sublimation and perversion” in religion (89) and particularly in the ritual of circumcision. Thus, Kristeva's analysis proceeds from Freud to the Bible in three steps outlining a circle: she moves from the meaning of Little Hans's castration anxiety, to the horror of the abject, to circumcision rituals in Leviticus. Although castration and circumcision are the beginning and end of her analysis, it is not the circumcised penis around which her analysis pivots. Rather, it is the body of the mother. For Kristeva, circumcision is a way of separating a fragile self from the body of the mother, and castration anxiety is an echo of what might be called “abjection anxiety.”

(p.113) Central to her analysis of the biblical laws of purity and holiness is the discussion of circumcision in relation to the uncleanness of women after parturition in Leviticus 12. Kristeva recites the biblical text: because of the process of childbirth and the blood accompanying it, according to Leviticus 12: 2, the woman is impure: “According to the days of separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.” If she gives birth to a daughter, she “shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation” (Leviticus 12: 5). Purification is enacted through sacrifice: the mother must provide a burnt offering and a sin offering. On the other hand, if she gives birth to a male, “the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12: 3). Circumcision of the male child replaces the sacrifice needed in the case of the female child. Circumcision separates the male child from maternal impurity and defilement. It is equivalent to sacrifice as “a sign of the alliance with God” (99).

In Kristeva's reading, Leviticus 12 is a text concerning “feminine and particularly maternal impurity” which articulates the notion that “what the male is separated from, the other that circumcision carves out on his very sex, is the other sex, impure, defiled.” She notes a parallel between the navel and the circumcised penis: “By repeating the natural scar of the umbilical cord at the location of sex, by duplicating and thus displacing through ritual the preeminent separation, which is that from the mother, Judaism seems to insist in symbolic fashion … that the identity of the speaking being (with his God) is based on the separation of the son from the mother” (99–100).6

Although in Kristeva's analysis circumcision as ritual represents a separation from the feminine or maternal abject, it never leaves the abject fully behind: the scars of circumcision provide a lasting reminder of the missing piece and its symbolism, a kind of doubling of the symbolism of the navel which marks the male as twice separated from the mother. Thus, a Kristevan reading identifies circumcision as a marker dividing the abject from the symbolic. Circumcision identiies the male infant as part of a male patrilineage, born first into abjection from the biological body of the mother, reborn out of abjection by means of the (p.114) social body of fathers and their symbolic actions. Circumcision thus separates the male child from his prior identity, from his birth by a physical mother (see Eilberg-Schwartz 1990, Jay 1992). A Kristevan analysis of abjection uncovers another layer in the fears and fantasies toward which Freud pointed in his reading of the common origins of anti-Semitism and misogyny.

By locating the origins of anti-Semitism and misogyny in castration anxiety, Freud developed a theory in which the practice of circumcision is central to the hostility toward Jews. Kristeva's analysis also finds an anxiety generated by circumcision central to anti-Semitism, but in her reading, the original anxiety is not castration anxiety, but rather the horror of the abject. Circumcision is secondary: the separation inscribed by circumcision is a reiteration of the earlier separation from the maternal abject. The ritual of circumcision separates the circumcised male from the abject, but the anti-Semite collapses the categories. Circumcision and Jewishness stand in for the horrifying maternal abject. While Freud believed that castration anxiety was the deepest form of anxiety, Kristeva shows that the horror of the abject lies deeper, and that castration anxiety emerges as a later manifestation of the horror, or Grauen, of maternal abjection. Freud's goal was to explain anti-Semitism in particular. Kristeva's theory, although also focused on the “mind of the anti-Semite,” offers as well an analysis of xenophobia in general.7

Returning to Freud

What Freud was able to acknowledge in 1909 and 1919 only in footnotes, and what he could articulate only implicitly and between the lines in the 1930s, has thus been described explicitly by Julia Kristeva. Where Freud was a hesitant, cautious, or circumspect analyst of the intersections of misogyny and anti-Semitism, Kristeva is a bolder analyst of these intersections. Her insights extend and clarify Freud's analysis, serving to press Freud's interpretations into dialogue with feminist and post-structuralist insights. Her analyses of abjection originate, she (p.115) herself acknowledges, at the same source from which “Freud had caught a glimpse: the gushing forth of the unconscious, the repressed, suppressed pleasure, be it sex or death” (206).8 Kristeva finds the sources of anti-Semitism within the same territories Freud located them: in the rage against the monotheistic law of the father and in the fear of the feminine or maternal space of abjection and abhorrence. As we have seen, her particular interest, like his, was in the second source. Her “abject” is close to his “uncanny.” Both theorists discovered this to be a maternal space, and both found it vitally important, as Kristeva puts it, to tear “the veil of the communitarian mystery, on which love of self and others is set up, only to catch a glimpse of the abyss of abjection within which they are underlaid” (209). The analyses of both Freud and Kristeva help to expose the psychological dynamics of the connections between anti-Semitism and misogyny and the effects of an ideology positing the female and the Jew as Other. Kristeva aids us in uncovering some of the incompletely articulated insights in Freud's counterthesis exploring the uncanniness of Jewishness both to the xenophobe and to the Jew.9

Kristeva's work makes possible a deeper inquiry into Freud's psychoanalytic theory of culture by supporting Freud's cautious, deferred, and forgotten speculations regarding the common space of anti-Semitism and misogyny. By reading Freud's cultural texts alongside the work of Kristeva, we can begin to see new possibilities for psychoanalytic theory—possibilities that Freud himself was unable to articulate fully. In this reading, Freud emerges clearly as a critic of cultural misogyny, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia (Jonte-Pace 1999b: 29, 30) and as a participant in the project of “feminist analysis.”

Previous chapters have shown that an incompletely articulated theory of unconscious associations of maternity, mortality, and immortality— a non-Oedipal counterthesis— can in fact be found in Freud's texts. We have seen evidence of this counterthesis in Freud's descriptions of his own Heimlich Jewish identity, in his analysis of the Unheimlichkeit of the Jew to the anti-Semite, in his writings on the (p.116) unheimlich mother, and in his interpretations of the religious belief in the Heimlichkeit of the afterlife. There remains another site where this counterthesis is evident: Freud's writings on mourning and melancholia. While Freud was a successful mourner of lost religion, he was an unsuccessful or “melancholic” mourner of the mother. In spite of this, and in spite of his inability to theorize the interrelations of maternity, mortality, and immortality, however, the unspun threads of his counterthesis nevertheless contain hints of a fuller tapestry which might help us understand the difficulties of living in modernity—and the possibilities of living without misogyny and xenophobia.


(1.) Freud was attentive to anti-Semitism in its diverse forms. See his remarks in “Resistances to Psychoanalysis” about anti-Semitism as a source of hostility to psychoanalysis: “The question may be raised whether the personality of the present writer as a Jew who has never sought to disguise the fact that he is a Jew may not have had a share in provoking the antipathy of his environment to psychoanalysis” (SE 19: 22).

(2.) These are not Freud's only published analyses of anti-Semitism. See, among many other references, The Future of an Illusion on the Aryan “illusion” of cultural superiority over other groups (SE 21), Civilization and its Discontents on the “narcissism of small differences” and the Jews' centuries of service as the (p.163) recipients or carriers of the projection of otherness for an anti-Jewish culture (SE 21), and “A Comment on Anti-Semitism” (SE 23: 287–293).

(3.) He reiterated this point a page later, emphasizing the disgust associated with women in the mind of the misogynist, but without using the term “uncanny”: “Before the child comes under the dominance of the castration complex—at a time when he still holds woman at full value—he begins to display an intense desire to look … with the discovery that women do not have a penis, this longing often turns into its opposite and gives place to a feeling of disgust … impotence, misogyny, and permanent homosexuality” (SE 11: 96).

(4.) Cixous notes that the footnote is “a typographical metaphor of repression which is always too near, but nevertheless negligible” (1976: 537).

(5.) One might productively examine Freud's similar deferrals and evasions of gender and Jewishness in the Schreber case (SE 12: 1–80).

(6.) Kristeva reiterates her point: “The abomination provoked by the fertilizable or fertile feminine body (menses, childbirth)” is associated with impurity and defilement and are thus attributed to the mother and to women in general (1982: 100, parentheses in the original).

(7.) Kristeva is explicit about her universalism: “I have sought … to demonstrate on what mechanism of subjectivity (which I believe to be universal) such horror, its meaning as well as its power, is based” (1982: 208, parentheses in original). Is Freud a universalist in this regard? Clearly, as Boyarin notes, he “sets out to explain, almost to justify antisemitism” (Boyarin 1997: 241).

(8.) Kristeva's explicit and Freud's implicit interpretations of the intersections of anti-Semitism and misogyny are supported by the research of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl who, in The Anatomy of Prejudices, describes the typical prejudices of the obsessive and narcissistic characters. Young-Bruehl notes, on the one hand, the sexualization and feminization of the hated object, and, on the other, the rage against mastery and authority projected onto the hated object. The classic anti-Semite, she argues, is an obsessional character who “wants to eliminate a Jew who is both a filthy nothing and a secret, world-conquering conspirator” (1996: 239). To the narcissistic character, on the other hand, the Jew is either “effeminate or one of the chosen people of the cultural elite, that is, a person who can be construed as making a competitive claim to preeminence” (239). Young-Bruehl's obsessive and narcissistic anti-Semites therefore, articulate the two “deeper motives” named by Freud and Kristeva. What seems evident is that Freud's culture supported—and ours continues to support—a mix of obsessive and narcissistic prejudices in which hatred of the Jews and hatred of women are linked. (p.164) Young-Bruehl's analyses contribute to Freud's and Kristeva's attempts to uncover the sources and dynamics of this fear of the Other. Young-Bruehl also describes a third type, the hysteric, with no direct parallel in Kristeva's and Freud's analyses of xenophobia.

(9.) Lyotard develops a similar argument, suggesting that Freud's analysis of the terror aroused by sexual difference provides a way of articulating the terror aroused by the unrepresentable Other. The role of the Other, he states, is the role assigned to the Jews in Western European thought (Lyotard 1990: 19–23; cf. Le Rider 1993: 171). Although Lyotard focuses on the terror aroused by sexual difference, rather than fear of the maternal abject (Kristeva) or fear of the maternal genitals (Freud), his argument is close to both Freud's and Kristeva's. Lyotard states, “sexual difference … plays in the thought (in the psychic apparatus) of the (European) Occident this rule of an immanent terror…. ‘The Jews’ … are what cannot be domesticated in the obsession to dominate” (21–22, parentheses in the original). He goes on, “anti-Semitism is one of the means of the apparatus of its culture to bind and represent—to protect against—the originary terror” (23).