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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 1
AN EMPIRICAL APPROACH TO COLLECTIVE AMNESIA
Copyright (C) 1981 by David Griffard
The scenarios of interplanetary chaos presented in Worlds in Collision stem primarily from Velikovsky's psychological analysis that historical reality underlies ancient legendary, mythical themes of theomachy and natural catastrophe. This meaning has been lost
The subsequent negative, suppressive response by the scientific community, particularly the astronomers, is well known. Velikovsky accounts for this reaction and its intensification, despite repeated confirmation of his deductions, in psychological terms as well.
If we accept the validity of Velikovsky's psychological premise, then the discrepancy between our present uniformitarian conception of natural history and the experience of global upheavals described by the ancients has resulted from motivated forgetting – a trauma induced collective amnesia maintained by active psychological repression.
The position that humankind collectively has become scotomic to its catastrophic past offers a wholly new foundation for general behavioral science. The accompanying view that buried collective terror continues to motivate present behavior brings the concept of collective amnesia to immediate attention. By analogy to the terms and dynamics of individual psychoanalysis, Velikovsky perceives contemporary humanity to be on a collision course with itself, compelled by repressed experience to recreate world cataclysm – "this time, I am afraid, in a man-made thermonuclear holocaust" (KRONOS III:2, p. 16).
Velikovsky's psychological model and terminology naturally follow his specialization as a psychoanalyst. Traditional concepts – e.g., repression, resistance, repetition-compulsion – are adapted to collective psychology and the task of overcoming collective amnesia is said to be "not unlike that of overcoming amnesia in a single person" (W in C, p. 300).
Within the history of the psychoanalytic movement, the primary challenge has been against the objectivity of Freud's view of the unconscious. Adler, among others, was a major protagonist, advocating a psychodynamic grounded in an intrinsic will to power. Jung attributed the theoretical conflict between Freud and Adler primarily to personality (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p. 53) while offering a variant theory of the unconscious. Freud publicly denounced Jung's apostasy saying that "an effective refutation of Jung's misconception of psychoanalysis and his deviations from it is not difficult" (The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, p. 976). Freud, too, invoked personality referring to Jung as "a person who, incapable of tolerating the authority of another, was still less fitted to be himself an authority, one whose energy was devoted to the unscrupulous pursuit of his own interests" (The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, p. 960). Stekel, who trained Velikovsky, was an early dissenter from Freud; and Velikovsky was, himself, researching an aspect of Freud's reasoning when he discovered his own solution to the riddle of the unconscious. Velikovsky's insight externalized the source of certain mental universals and assigned them to fixed points in history. This signaled a major theoretical departure; nurture not nature was the primary determinant in collective psychodynamics.
As a foundation for his own theory, Freud had offered some vague period of uncivilized, instinct-driven prehistory when, he assumed, a variation of Darwin's fantasy of the primal horde was acted out universally (The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, pp. 915 ff.). Jung, on the other hand, specified that the sources for his concept of archetypes had never been conscious.
For both Freud and Jung, the designs perceived in the mental fabric were intrinsic – derived from the nature of the being. By contrast, Velikovsky grounded his principal dynamic in historically fixed, natural calamities, and opened his assumptions to external, quantitative validation by means not available to other analysis-based theories. At the same time, by emphasizing an active repression to explain collective amnesia, a psychoanalytic perspective was retained.
But, for experiences acquired during great psychological and physical shock there is more than motivated forgetting (repression) with which to contend. Individual memory can be affected by a variety of causes that would not come under the rubric of repressed memories (emotionally blocked retrieval) but which result in irretrievable loss through initial memory storage failure.
Research has established that the biological memory mechanism requires time to encode an experience for permanent recall. From the limited-capacity, short-term memory system, significant elements from the flow of experience are selected for consolidation into long term memory. Intense psychological or physical trauma during consolidation, which takes about thirty minutes, can disrupt the process causing complete loss of unconsolidated experience (Cf. McConnell, Understanding Human Behavior, pp. 430-433). People subjected to the violent energies of cosmic cataclysm could suffer significant memory loss for whole segments of time preceding that of some severe shock. Because Velikovsky noted instances of violent global earthshocks (W in C, p. 215), it is easy to imagine that some of them obliterated unconsolidated experience in all survivors.* If so, some details of cosmic natural history – the half-hour or so before a sufficiently strong earth shock, are not retrievable from human memory. Combined with regional shocks during an ongoing cataclysm, details of many events were variously erased by trauma-induced storage failure.
The emergence of surviving cultures, where fragmented memories were collectively reconstructed, may be likened to the process of consolidation in individual memory. During this consolidation, experiences being transformed into long-term memory undergo further distortion. Only the most salient details are preserved as the engrams become finalized. In the process, surviving experiences are multiply stored, in a sense, by categories – some purely symbolic and further distortion is introduced through mis-classification (see Parry, KRONOS I:1, pp. 6-9, for another discussion of the problems in consolidating collective memory for global cataclysms). Where there are completely missing elements in individual memory, the amnesia victim may confabulate a logical filler, inserting it in the chain of memory as factual with no real intent to distort or falsify. A similar thing has occurred when, in recounting an event to a group of friends, the gradual recall of additional details brings the realization that the original telling was incomplete or incorrect – except that no auto-correction is possible in the case of wholly missing memories.
No doubt something akin to all these processes occurred during collective memory consolidation of the catastrophes. To this we may add the analogy between brain damage to an existing individual memory and the effects of both natural and human destruction on the collective record; and finally, the analogy to general loss through aging alone (e.g., the decay of materials). Altogether, the potential for gaps, distortion, and pure fantasy in the collective memory before the contemporary psychological repression can obscure what remains – is staggering.
In sum: Contemporary collective repression begins its operation on material already significantly disguised; Nature itself has kept some details of the disasters wholly secret; surviving impressions were distorted through difficulties in encoding the incomplete and incomprehensible, through confabulations for missing recall, plus whatever psychological repression contributed at the time.
From this perspective the cultural memory for the catastrophes themselves is cast in dream-like form – a rough analogy to what Freud called "manifest content" in individual dreams. This was the dream as experienced after the dreamwork – censorship, symbolization, condensation, etc. – had appropriately distorted the underlying meaning. With this in mind, the magnitude of Velikovsky's achievement as an analyst properly takes center stage. So too his contention that "only a philosophically and historically, but also analytically trained mind [in long years of excercise] can see in the mythological subjects their true content. . ." (KRONOS III:2, p. 7).
But here the question of subjectivity in interpreting such material comes again to the fore. Velikovsky was the first to warn that his own understanding was, at best, a general orientation toward, rather than an absolute reconstruction of, the events themselves (W in C, p. ix). He noted his own struggle with the ambiguity of testimony for the central drama of Worlds in Collision.
While he resolved the issue to his own satisfaction (W in C, p. 173), Velikovsky, two decades later, continued to caution others not to dogmatize his interpretations (Address: Portland Symposium, 1972) despite repeated discoveries confirming his key cosmological and historical claims.
Fortunately, unlike his predecessors, Velikovsky had discovered a central psychodynamic which rested entirely on the occurrence of specific environmental calamities. By externalizing the source of much "manifest content" in the human dream, the prime assumption was lifted from the authority of the individual analyst and opened to objective validation in history. Collective psychoanalysis was transformed largely into general behavioral science.
Instead of having roots in the evolved biological nature of the species, the principal driving dynamic of collective psychology was acquired through mechanisms far more appropriate to the Pavlovian laboratory than to the analyst's couch. This does not negate the importance of psychoanalytic perspectives. Much of Freudian psychology is seen projected into the ancient symbolization of, and the motives ascribed to, the celestial agents of disaster. There are also contemporary implications and observations, drawn from the concept of collective repetition-compulsion, to consider. (See Kroth's article following for a link between traditional psychoanalysis and catastrophism, and its importance to contemporary collective psychology.)
In any case, the primary shaping events were themselves apsychological, mechanistic, and external. Both the prodigies which signaled the occasion, and the energies which directly evoked the collective terror originated in the environment. This situation is exactly parallel to the laboratory paradigm for Pavlovian conditioning of fear to previously unfeared stimuli.
Here the intermittent appearance of initially neutral or merely curious stimuli, or sudden changes in a steady-state stimulus, are followed systematically by painful or intense noxious stimulation. The resulting reflexes and evoked fear soon attach to the signaling stimulus itself. In instances of intense stimulation, the association can be formed in a single experience. Once fear becomes conditioned to a particular signal, it generalizes proportionately to similar kinds of stimulation, some quite removed in similarity from the original experience. Because so many prodigies accompanied the cataclysms originally, humankind through generalization was conditioned to fear any unexpected event in the heavens.
Obviously, for the transfer of cosmic fear conditioned in one generation to descendants who have neither experience with, nor conscious awareness of, cosmic cataclysms, some biological mechanism is suggested. Recent experiments by Skolnick, et al. (Science, vol. 208, 6 June 1980, pp. 1161-1163) have demonstrated conclusively the vertical transmission of an experientially acquired trait from mothers to progeny in laboratory rats. Compared with those normally weaned, rats prematurely separated from their mothers display a significant predisposition to develop gastric erosions when later subjected to stress. This trait appears in normally weaned progeny of mothers subjected to early separation. Subsequent cross-fostering studies showed the transmission to be prenatally rather than post-natally determined; offspring born to early-separated mothers develop the trait though reared from birth by normally weaned mothers. Earlier research is cited showing similar transfer of behavioral and physical effects from "daily handling during weaning" and from "intervention before mating in female rats" (p. 1162). Other studies are reviewed in which "exposure of female rats to various drugs before impregnation has been shown to affect their progeny" (p. 1162). Skolnick, et al., stress that their research shows the "transmission of susceptibility to a disease in which the trait was acquired in the parent generation by an environmental manipulation rather than by a drug treatment" (p. 1163). The researchers conclude that they "know of no satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon" (p. 1163).
Our own view suggests that, because of the known relationship between emotionality and ulcers, a purely psychological predisposition (resulting from the premature separation of the parental generation from their mothers) has been transferred. We can make a similar suggestion for the effects of handling during weaning and the intervention before mating in the parent generation. The amount of early physical contact has been shown to have a critical effect on emotional development in primates, including humans, and seems to be an important variable for mammalian infants generally. Significant emotional effects from the interference with mating in estrous females, even in rats, are not difficult to imagine. In each case where the parent generation was influenced by environmental manipulation alone, the type of manipulation would seem to affect the emotional condition of the parent generation most directly. Thus, while such research does not demonstrate the transfer of Pavlovian-conditioned emotion, it does suggest the inheritance of traits from induced emotionality in the parents. Behavioral science seems very close to experimental discovery that emotions conditioned to specific environmental stimuli may be inherited by subsequent generations.
In humans, verbal representations alone can still evoke some degree of previously conditioned fears. Along with gruesome ritual to emphasize emotion, the fear of celestial disorder could be reinforced by escatological religions. Even today Judao-Christian tradition teaches that the Final Day will be presaged by celestial prodigies. Thus, a social learning mechanism alone could preserve some portion of collective fear of celestial disorder.
For collective psychology, a Pavlovian mechanism governing the collective acquisition of fear requiring repression simultaneously offers an equally mechanistic process which gradually eliminates that fear. Laboratory-conditioned fears eventually are extinguished when the signal ceases to be followed by the fear-evoking event. If there have been no major celestial disruptions (as assumed here) since the last Mars encounter, the continued occurrence of comets, eclipses, meteor showers, etc. – without consequent calamity – should have served partially to extinguish the raw undifferentiated terror generalized to such stimuli. This would include as well the power of verbal, ritual escatological methods. It may be that our own generation's conscious confrontation with celestial catastrophism has been facilitated by the millennia-long period of natural collective fear-extinction through celestial non-reinforcement. The emergence of natural science itself could be related to the gradual racial environmental desensitization of this generalized conditioned fear.
But, while achieving collective consciousness of the impersonal natural character of celestial bodies and their governance by natural laws, forced perception and maintenance of the whole in uniformitarian terms shows the process to be far from complete. However well along from the effects of environmental extinction, there remains a prepotent aversion to the next increment in collective conscious recovery of memory – the recency of such catastrophic events and their direct bearing on contemporary human life.
It should be apparent that Velikovsky did not elaborate a collective unconscious per se. His concern was for a glimpse into its nature through information retrievable from the stories, artifacts, rituals, and other evidence preserved in what is essentially the collective consciousness of humankind. The specific details of the events themselves – distorted, condensed, displaced, or completely missing – constitute the truly "unconscious" dimension of collective psychology – the terrible and ambiguous origins.
As cultures survived and prospered across the long intervals between cosmic disasters they strove for accuracy in their conscious observation of the current order of nature both for religious and for practical purposes. Unlike the collective memory for a given catastrophe, passed on in broken form by a single generation, spans of celestial stability produced elaborate descriptions of the visible heavens – refined by specialists to a high level in some ancient cultures. Velikovsky already has shown the behavioral proofs in astronomical tables, calendars, sundials, temple orientations, and other ancient methods directly describing the celestial order.
The mythical and symbolic substance too, however, takes on at least some quantitative value itself. Measurement-based astral societies were no less meticulous about quantitative elements (see Stecchini elsewhere in this issue) as they formalized these in their symbolic and decorative work – temple architecture and astral decoration; costumes, headgear and standards of priesthood, royalty, and military; astral-ritual parameters, as well as the popular adoption of these themes by professional and domestic artisans (Cf. Greenberg and Sizemore, KRONOS I:1, p. 36). Given the acknowledged centrality of astral reference and the principle of earth-sky parallelism, the whole culture reflected the observable physical order. Marshack has already demonstrated that a quantitative analysis of the presumed exclusively symbolic and decorative aspects of prehistoric visual arts is justified, revealing strong evidence for prehistoric astronomy and calendrics (see KRONOS II:4, pp. 37-42). How much more justified for historical materials, known to be astronomically inspired and occasionally accompanied by verbal identification.
A sufficient mass of these sources, evaluated for their numerical, positional, or sequential astronomical content could reveal critical clues to identify the relative orientation of fixed stars, orbital periods, or other astronomical regularities of the day. Properly arranged in time, such data must reveal an abrupt shift in at least some of the astral parameters following a catastrophically induced break in the record. Whatever the combination of Freudian and right-brain differentials in symbolic representation of the "Host of Heaven", their left-brain execution and introduction of systematic observation based numbers also objectifies the symbolic. In cross-cultural comparison the quantitative record of celestial deities becomes independent of their imagined, projected, and subsequently symbolized nature.
The entire range of artifacts, designs, etc. throughout a culture become potential data sources – collectively conscious, collectively observed, and collectively preserved clues to the astronomical order between catastrophes. The advantage lies in the option for examining large samples of evidence by objective statistical procedures, permitting the data itself to reveal its order. The disadvantage lies, of course, in the sheer magnitude of the data collection and coding task itself, along with the desirability of computer-assisted cluster and sequential pattern analysis.* Assuming the means, patterns discovered here could serve to reinforce and clarify testimony from the relatively scarce store of direct astronomical records and artifacts (e.g., the Senmut ceiling). They could also aid in the refinement of Velikovsky's historical reconstruction because of the external, time centered source of change.
We cannot rule out possible sources of evidence from animal behavior. Pavlovian fear conditioning may have left visible traces in animal responses to unusual celestial phenomena. The observed agitated behavior of some species, apparently sensitive to subliminal sounds or other cues, before an earthquake may represent an instance of fear collectively conditioned by global earthquakes during cosmic cataclysms. If celestial prodigies are found to affect animal behavior, this would directly support a rationale that such events were once accompanied by terrifying physical effects.
Velikovsky's psychological model clearly opens many possibilities for empirical research in behavioral science which otherwise would not be justified. To the degree that quantitative methods can be brought to bear on the problem, the contemporary resistance to the concept of cosmic catastrophism in historical times will be further weakened. Besides the importance to the advance in knowledge which could result, the more pressing danger of man-made disaster through collective repetition-compulsion would be affected. The ominous thought that this self-destructive urge may achieve its end before a sufficient period for collective fear-extinction has passed, or a breakthrough in collective anamnesis occurs, emphasizes the priority of these questions. Velikovsky's collective psychology is not just another theoretical variation. If he is correct – and a satisfactory consciousness of the past is not achieved – the vague, uncertain future foreseen by other psychological theories becomes an almost certain and terrible destiny for humankind. The question becomes not whether, but when?
"And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour"