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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 1
COLLECTIVE AMNESIA: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONCEPT
THOMAS L. FERTÉ
Of the major ideas advanced in Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision (1950) one particularly fascinating is the concept of "collective amnesia". It is the subject of Mankind in Amnesia, due out in early 1982, and follows logically from Velikovsky's professional training in medicine at the University of Moscow (M.D. 1921), his studies in Vienna with Dr. Wilhelm Stekel (one of Freud's influential protegés), and his practice in Haifa and Tel-Aviv as a psychoanalyst (until 1939). Most directly, it follows his long interest in the theoretical psychologies of Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung and his own analysis of mental life grounded in the concept of celestial catastrophism.
Velikovsky evidently believes that what Jung refers to as "the collective unconscious" – which is part of what Freud calls "the collective mind" – is the repository of repressed memories relating to terrifying cataclysms in mankind's ancient past. The near-total destructiveness of catastrophes as described in Worlds in Collision so shocked the human psyche that any "racial memory" of the catastrophes was transmuted and the true meaning of the various narrations was forgotten; that is, mankind suffers from collective amnesia.(1) "This hypothesis intended as an extension of the psychoanalytic concept of traumatic amnesia to the body politic, was . . . concerned with the reasons for the subsequent misinterpretations of extant texts pertaining to cosmic catastrophes, and not to the existence of those texts. This seemingly straightforward distinction was to be buried underneath the mountain of vituperation which followed upon the publication of Worlds in Collision.... [Thus] a theory solely aimed at the perception of the evidence for catastrophes was misconstrued to mean that the evidences for the catastrophes were non-existent" (Pensée VII, Spring 1974, pp. 47-48).
Velikovsky did have his precursors, however, which prominently included the names of Giambattista Vico and Ignatius Donnelly.
Not before the first edition of Vico's New Science (1725) is there another theory so closely approximating Velikovsky's concept of collective amnesia. At the heart of his new method (i.e., his "new science") of human inquiry is what Vico calls "imaginative universals," which David Bidney, in "Vico's New Science of Myth" (1969), defines in this way – "An imaginative universal is an epistemic fact; it is an ideal class image based on the experience of particulars."(2) Vico maintains that imaginative universals are peculiar to specific ethnic groups during specific cultural and historical epochs (cf. Bastian's "ethnic ideas"). Beyond this seminal concept, however, Vico postulates: (1) "Uniform ideas originating among people unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth" (Axiom XIII); and (2) "There must in the nature of human institutions be a mental language common to all nations" (Axiom XXII).(3) These two ideas are the basis of Vico's concept of the imaginative universal, the "ideal class image," in Bidney's terms, common to all mankind.
It is this theory, more than anything else, which has led to the renewed interest in Vichian studies in the twentieth century. In On the Boiler (1938), for example, W. B. Yeats says, "Vico was the first modern philosopher to discover in his own mind, and in the European past, all human destiny"; and Yeats' own concept of a universal soul or spirit, the Spiritus Mundi, has much in common with Vico's imaginative universal.(4) Similarly, in Justice and World Society (1944), Laurence Stapleton recognizes Vico's theory as a "preromantic notion of collective consciousness";(5) and in My Philosophy (1949), it enables Benedetto Croce, a native student of Vico's thought, to conclude "the old and past lives in the new and living."(6)
Vico's studies were influenced by his Catholic faith and, for his time, a sophisticated approach to etymology. In truth, modern philology, as the term is presently used, probably begins with Vico's New Science. And it is not at all farfetched to identify Vico as the father of modern ethnography. But nothing is of any greater interest for the purposes of the present study than his euhemeristic investigation of myth. The wide occurrence of similar motifs in so much of the world's mythologies led him to accept, for example, the reality of the Noachian flood as an act of divine providence. This method of mythic analysis also lies behind his influential cyclic view of history.
Graeco-Roman myth usually portrays the development of history in terms of the Four (sometimes Five) Ages of Man. The first, or Golden Age, is a time of milk and honey, with man living in natural harmony with an Eden-like environment; this is followed by the Silver Age, a period of gods and the chaotic triumph of Zeus-Jupiter over the forces of Kronos-Saturn; next is the Bronze Age, an age of heroes and the epic deeds of demigods like Achilles and Aeneas; and finally there is the Iron Age, a time of men and all their vile deeds when, as Ovid says, "the maiden Justice . . . /Fled from the bloody earth" (Metamorphoses i. 150-51). The evil of this last age will be brought to an end by a great catastrophe of some sort, usually a divine fire or flood, after which a new Golden Age will ensue and the entire cycle begins anew.
Although he revises this classical arrangement, in his view of history Vico also assumes the reality of four ages or stages of human development. Moreover, as Stuart Hampshire points out in "Vico and the Contemporary Philosophy of Language" (1969): "Vico finds a parallel to the development of the human mind through stages in history in the development of an individual's mind from childhood to old age."(7) His first stage is the age of gods, a prehistoric period corresponding to man's infancy, when his bestial ancestors lived in primitive tribal groups. The second is the age of heroes, a stage corresponding to man's youth, when cities were first built and the rudiments of civilization were established. Next is the age of man, that is, man as he exists today, corresponding to man's maturity, when he is governed by laws founded upon "conscience, reason, and duty".(8) Vico's final stage is the age of barbarity, a time of destruction and war corresponding to man's old age and death, when moral conduct is subverted by all kinds of brutality and evil. Vichian history does not end here, though. As in Graeco-Roman myth, Vico believes the decline of civilization eventually is brought to a halt by some kind of divine catastrophe, which also ushers in a new age of gods and a repetition of the entire cycle, corsi-ricorsi.
Just as Vico's theory of imaginative universals parallels Jung's concept of the collective unconscious, his view of history and the development of man from birth to old age and death prefigures Freud's thesis about ontogenesis recapitulating phylogenesis. For the immediate discussion, however, the most significant aspect of Vico's theory of cyclical history is his explanation about why its existence is veiled by myth. As Bidney observes, Vico suggests "there is a kind of collective amnesia in the long passage of time which makes men . . . forget the allegorical meanings implicit in the poetic language of the ancients" who authored the myths.(9)
Vico never uses the term coined by Velikovsky (i.e., "collective amnesia"), but his ideas on man's failure to understand the human and natural history buried in myth come very close to Velikovsky's theory about mankind's repressed archaic memory, the reason for which, in turn, finds reinforcement in Vico's concept of imaginative universals. Whereas Velikovsky contends that any conscious recollection of the global cataclysms he describes has been thwarted by the psychological trauma induced by the events themselves, Vico maintains that many of man's key myths are the result of his primal ancestor's awe when confronted by fearful natural phenomena such as thunder.(10) And if both Vico and Velikovsky are correct, the great catastrophes depicted by the latter would be a far more logical trigger for the collective repression indicated in their studies than localized natural phenomena related to ordinary floods, storms, and vulcanism.(11)
Unlike Vico's New Science, Donnelly's Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883) contains many explicit similarities to Velikovskian catastrophism. As in Worlds in Collision, Donnelly is, one, interdisciplinary and, two, euhemeristic. Like Velikovsky, Donnelly is not intimidated by the artificial boundaries between various so-called disciplines. He draws his evidence from astronomy and history, legend and myth, as well as geology and paleontology. One difference between Donnelly and Velikovsky is a nominal one. Whereas the latter has a separate book, Earth in Upheaval (1955) – on most of the geological and paleontological evidence for his theory – Donnelly incorporates all of his material into one volume. But discounting the clues Donnelly uncovers in his investigation of science, Ragnarok, again like Worlds in Collision, is primarily a compendium of ancient history, legend, and myth – and his analysis of myth anticipates Velikovsky's. While neither man refers to Euhemerus (who flourished c. 311-298 B.C.), both treat myth as veiled history.
More than anything else, Donnelly's euhemeristic interpretation of myth is responsible for his theory of celestial catastrophism. Donnelly's theory is an extension of his investigation of the Atlantis myth, which is the subject of his first book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882). Like Velikovsky, who developed his theory while reconstructing ancient Near East history, Donnelly's catastrophism is an extension of his fascinating synthesis. Whereas Velikovsky is led to follow the tale of a comet beginning with Moses and the Exodus, Donnelly's story begins with Plato and the destruction of Atlantis.
Donnelly's theory, in capsule form, maintains that Atlantis was destroyed when, in his Velikovsky-like words (published sixty-seven years before Worlds in Collision), "a serpent-like comet struck the earth".(12) Additionally, like Velikovsky, Donnelly says – "This long trailing object in the skies was probably the origin of that primeval serpent-worship found all over the world."(13) Similar to Velikovsky, he speaks of comets as "the debris of exploded planets ...."(14) Again, Donnelly describes the dimensions for a comet: "a head fifty times as large as the moon, and a tail one hundred and sixteen million miles long."(15) Donnelly also writes about the role of "magnetism or electricity" in cometary tails;(16) and he describes his Atlantis comet as an "external force so mighty that it would crack the crust of the globe like an eggshell, lining its surface with great rents and seams, through which the molten interior boiled up to the light".(17) Is Velikovsky's Exodus comet that much different?
A significant difference between the two theories is their respective time frames. Velikovsky contends that a proto-planet caused global upheavals in the time of the Mosaic Exodus, an event he places at c. 1450 B.C. Donnelly's "world-convulsing catastrophe," which he describes as "sudden and overwhelming,"(18) supposedly brought an end to "the lovely Tertiary conditions...".(19) Today's geologists date the end of the Tertiary at around two million years ago. But Donnelly places it between thirty-one and twenty-eight thousand years ago, or twenty thousand years before his dates for the Biblical Deluge.(20) Modern science denies the existence of Homo sapiens in Tertiary times, of course, and the idea that a high civilization such as Donnelly associates with his antediluvian Atlantis could have thrived even twenty-eight thousand years ago seems totally preposterous. Like Velikovsky, however, Donnelly may be close to a solution for the major breaks between some of the geologic ages. His comment on the Tertiary suggests as much; and he is far more explicit about a possible relationship between comets and the geologic record in Chapter VII of Ragnarok: "The Earth Struck By Comets Many Times".(21) Similarly, in "Cometary Collisions and Geological Periods," a letter published in Nature (1973), Harold C. Urey said: "it does seem possible and even probable that a comet collision with the Earth destroyed the dinosaurs and initiated the Tertiary division of geologic time."(22) And in The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs (1976), Adrian J. Desmond makes this interesting observation: "According to the latter-day catastrophists, the dinosaurs exited with the most spectacular bang since Creation, and, the geologist's lingering aversion to cataclysms notwithstanding, it is becoming difficult to disagree.... Supernova or otherwise, whatever racked the planet 70 million years ago brought to an abrupt end the Mesozoic world order and closed a major chapter of earth history.... The magnitude of the devastation cannot be underestimated . . . Whatever the nature of the event that we are dealing with, it was of cataclysmic proportions."(23))
Many descriptions in Worlds in Collision parallel events first depicted in Donnelly's book. "We shall see," Donnelly states, "that many of the legends tell us that, as the comet approached the earth, that is, as it entered our atmosphere and combined with it, it gave forth world appalling noises, thunders beyond all earthly thunders, roarings, howlings, and hissings, that shook the globe."(24) As Donnelly points out, "This. . . terrible noise . . . would necessarily result from the carbureted hydrogen of the comet exploding in our atmosphere."(25) This event, in Donnelly's reconstruction, is followed by "tremendous electrical action," or lightning-like discharges, between the two atmospheres, the comet's and the Earth's, which ancient man recorded in his myths "as the arrows of the rescuing demi-god who saves the world".(26) Further, like Velikovsky, Donnelly says this ancient celestial encounter "was accompanied by inconceivable winds – the hurricanes and cyclones spoken of in many of the legends".(27)
As for collective amnesia, both Donnelly and Velikovsky set forth similar ideas. Like Vico, their euhemeristic analysis of myth is, from the beginning, enough to lead both Donnelly and Velikovsky to the same conclusion about humankind's collective repression of the terrifying phenomena they describe. Following his summation of the evidence he finds in myth – "the conflagration of the world, accompanied by awful apparitions in the sky, quaking of the earth, vomiting of lava by thousands of volcanoes, melting of the ground, boiling of the sea, submersion of continents, a primeval chaos bombarded by flying hot stones, the roaring of the cleft earth, and the loud hissing of tornadoes of cinders"(28) – Velikovsky declares:
Donnelly's psychological conclusion is, therefore, similar to that which is found in Worlds in Collision. "We shall see," Donnelly points out time after time, "that man . . . preserved the memory of this catastrophe to the present day, in a multitude of myths and legends scattered all over the face of the habitable earth"; and again – "every detail of the mighty catastrophe has been preserved in the legends of mankind...."(30) Like Velikovsky, Donnelly follows his evidence to this conclusion: "We must concede that these legends of a world embracing conflagration represent a race-remembrance of a great fact...."(31) Logically enough, in the absence of any Freudian or Jungian precedence, Donnelly does not relate this observation to psychological repression, but this mechanism is clearly implied toward the end of his book, when he says – "Man, by an inherited instinct, regards the comet as a great terror and a great foe; and the heart of humanity sits uneasily when one blazes in the sky."(32) Clearly, Donnelly's "race-remembrance" amounts to a pre-Velikovskian concept of collective amnesia.
l. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, pp. 298-300 & 383