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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 1
Collective Amnesia In Everyday Life
JEROME A. KROTH
The concept is important for many reasons. First, it has the roots of both Freudian and Jungian traditions and, as such, offers an opportunity to bring these major personality theorists into greater harmony. Second, it has importance to Velikovskian scholars who have struggled with the resistance exerted by the scientific community against Velikovskian catastrophism. This resistance may be, on the one hand, nothing more than a form of scientific purism which has difficulty accepting the historical-correlational methodology Velikovsky employed. On the other hand, it may be a visible form of collective amnesia itself, a "need to resist" the kinds of suggestions Velikovsky makes. Velikovsky's point of view is, after all, not without emotional consequences, and the human race is far more vulnerable, insecure, and uncertain of its future if the catastrophic hypothesis is accepted.
The purpose of this essay is to address collective amnesia and explore more of its meta-psychology.
Both Freud and Jung based their respective systems on dialectics, polarities, the mutual balancing of opposites. When something was repressed, something else had to be expressed. Opposite forces cling mysteriously to one another and are always found together, each force compensating for the other. To Jung this dialectical relationship was responsible for the whole of psychic energy:
In his work with an hysterical patient suffering from a paralyzed arm, Freud discovered her symptom was a means of expressing a conflict, an opposition, an internal dialectic. The paralysis was an inhibition of the desire to strike. There were two opposing elements: the impulse and the defense against the impulse, two forces acting together in reciprocal action – both observable, both real, and yet both lying hidden under the cloud of the patient's own amnesia. She neither knew she wanted to strike nor that she was repressing such a desire.
Applied to Velikovsky's view of collective amnesia, in like manner the tendency to forget must be counterbalanced by the tendency to remember; the tendency to hide the truth must be offset by the need to exhibit it. The denial of catastrophism must be counterpointed by a preoccupation with it. The Gestalt therapists perhaps say it most clearly in their maxim: "The more you resist, the more it persists!" Freud called this concept the "return of the repressed" and it implies that whatever has been repressed must, in some manner, be finding its way back, returning, exhibiting itself in disguised form right before our eyes. Whatever memories appear to be lost in the recesses of our historical past must, if they are repressed, find access to the present world of our experience in some distorted manner. Collective amnesia implies a collective return of this material: what we deny ever having happened (amnesia) must be something happening in some manner all the time (return of the repressed).
A principal dynamic by which repressed material is returned and repeated is through the defense mechanism of projection. Projection is an externalization of forbidden, repressed or alienated psychic material. Traumatic feelings, memories, opposite-sexed tendencies, or antithetical visions of oneself are externalized and projected on to some other individual or group. Once projected, they may be viewed with the disgust, horror, or fascination that one would experience if the individual became directly conscious of the material.
The psychological defense of projection is common to many forms of neurosis. The repressed elements in people's character essentially determine how and what they perceive in the outside world. They are "missing" what is really there and, instead, perceiving their own projected traumata; they are seeing in reality those parts of themselves they cannot accept, tolerate, or permit.
As long as the psyche is engaged in projection, one remains alienated from both the external world as well as the internal one.
Velikovsky speaks of collective trauma and collective repression. Such a view leads us to a return of this repressed material "collectively projected" into contemporary life so that individuals can stand in witness to events which "appear" to be occurring independently of them when, in fact, these independent events are nothing more than the shadows of their own collective amnesia:
That is to say, if humankind is suffering from collective amnesia, the repressed material will seek to return, will likely be projected, with the effect that humanity is unconsciously recreating and recapitulating the original events of its trauma. A victim of child abuse grows up, half remembering personal traumatic memories (amnesia) and terribly angered when reading of child abuse in the morning newspaper (projection), yet as a parent has an extremely strong statistical tendency to repeat the same kind of child abuse (repetition compulsion). As this individual is living in a dream world constructed out of half-forgotten childhood traumas, so is humankind repetitiously acting out a dream taken to be reality.
The catastrophism in the morning newspaper – the precipitous march toward world annihilation (through thermonuclear fires) and the pre-occupation with any event even vaguely reminiscent of extinction (war, murder, disease, disaster) – strongly suggests that humankind is recreating for itself those former conditions under which the human race came very close to its own demise.* Newspapers and contemporary history must be the measure of this collective projection. These stories are the accumulated collective account, the daily log of our collective dreams and projections. It is in these accounts of the present, as well as the archaeological digs into our past, where we find the living record of our catastrophic experience. Velikovsky has told us that our myths represent realities, but by looking into his assumptions we are discovering that our current realities represent dreamy, projected mythologies.
To suffer from collective amnesia is to repress, and to be repressed is to be asleep, dormant, stale, snoring right through our very existence. And what is it that we do when we are asleep, but dream, and do so collectively as one species. As Jung said, "we dream the myths onward".(5) The world of Caesar and Churchill are no more real than the world of Cinderella and Peter Pan. The reality and the fantasy belong – like Oedipus and Akhnaton – to one legitimate subject matter, the discipline of understanding collective symbols and projections . . . the by-products and psychodynamic consequences of collective amnesia. To transcend the neurosis – collective or individual – requires consciousness, requires the "patient" to re-interpret symbols, the major figures in life which, heretofore, were thought to be real but which are now recognized as empty vessels upon which psychic contents were projected. To become conscious of these symbols, to become conscious of the collective trauma, to awaken from the dream: these are the tasks that await post-cataclysmic humanity.
Interpreting contemporary life as a dream is first to understand the method of dream interpretation. Freud said dreams originate from a peculiar arrangement between id and ego. In waking life the ego which normally has the functions of motility and perception under its auspices, screens out impulses from the id preventing them from actuating themselves in the external world (impulsivity) or in gaining access to the perceptual system to distort the real world (hallucinations). When the ego fails in this task, the individual is usually labeled psychotic. In sleep, however, a normal "psychotic regression" is affected, and the ego surrenders its control over the perceptual apparatus having, in a sense, bargained with the id over the issue of motoric access. The id is barred from the musculature and therefore from the external world while the organism is kept at rest and immobilized. As long as no threats to action are made by the id, the ego allows the id a harmless amount of access to its second major psychic agency – perception – and the rich panorama of visual images – the dream – constitutes the id's hallucinatory reward. The id is confined to a theatre of fantasy and symbol having been thwarted from its instinctual aim of action.(7)
Such a view of the dream process, as psychotic hallucinatory regression, is rich in descriptive power and is, in fact, supported empirically. One would expect, for example, the hallucinations of psychotics to be similar to the dreams of a normal person and observation largely supports such a parallel.(8)
Dreams have a great variety. Jung, himself, interpreted over 80,000 dreams and still cautioned others that, after he heard a dream reported, the first thing he reminded himself was that he had no idea what it meant. Only after that could he begin the task of discerning its meaning. It is not within the scope or intent of this paper to interpret collective dreams but to search, instead, for some of the universal and invariant aspects of dream life. We are interested in the collective nature of the dream humankind apparently is having in the quiet of his amnesia and therefore are looking not for individual differences but rather for the universal and invariant aspects of dreaming; things that "almost always happen" or "almost never happen".
Certainly one thing dreams "almost never" show is the death of the dreamer. The dreamer may be threatened with death, attacked, pursued, robbed, mutilated, or he may already be dead, lying in a casket, being buried, seeing his relatives weeping over his casket, but he rarely ever dreams of the actual moment of his own death. The reason, of course, is that the ego is almost always present in dreams, even if only serving as stage manager and censor. It cannot accept being brought into the production and ceremoniously slaughtered. Ego-death, as such, almost never happens in dreams while, paradoxically, threats to the ego generally do.
Since we are all hypothetically suffering from both individual and collective repression, we cannot know accurately what is happening to us independent of such repression, particularly where dreams are concerned. Many people, for example, claim that they never dream or cannot recall ever having an obviously sexual dream. Both of these claims, more likely than not, are untrue. Some additional facts:
In sum, to understand our collective projections is to come to terms with the collective dream; there are at least two relatively invariant, universal or collective features to all dreams: we almost never allow ourselves to stand in witness of our own death, and we are almost always dreaming in a physiological state of sexual excitation. The collective side of our dream world, therefore, as in so much of our literature, history, and journalism, revolves around two major issues: sex and death.
Sex and Catastrophism
Understanding the relationship between these two issues will help to clarify meta-relationships between collective psychoanalysis and catastrophism. Considering sexuality first, we observe that Freud treated this instinct separately, as not belonging to the class of instincts he called ontogenetic or self-preservative. These latter drive states (hunger, thirst, etc.) cannot be postponed or suspended and must be satisfied in relatively short periods of time to preserve the life and vitality of the individual organism (ontogeny). Sexuality, however, is a collective instinctual system, the aim of which is phylogenetic, i.e., the preservation and survival of the race (in conjunction with or independently of the individual).(10) If Freud had a concept like the collective psyche, he would have contended that energy upon which it was based was libidinal or sexual. Jung, on the other hand, who did have a theory of the collective psyche, did not contend that it was powered by a primarily sexual energy.
This state of affairs is altogether disappointing when one tries to bridge the gap between these theorists and Velikovsky. Quite obviously, the issue of phylogenetic "extinction" or "reproduction" is both a collective issue and a sexual one. If the human race indeed experienced a cataclysm which threatened its survival, such a trauma must be seen as a collective, sexual, trauma, and neither psychoanalysis nor analytical psychology is equipped to examine it in these terms.*
Freud observed that the first law of aboriginal society is always sexually rooted, because these phylogenetic rules are the most important, because the governance of sexuality bears upon the survival of the clan, the group, the society, and ultimately the race; by their very nature these laws supersede laws which govern the interests of individual men. Laws against incest and laws governing reproduction must, according to Freud, appear before laws regulating trade, vandalism, or spitting since the former are phylogenetic in character and the latter ontogenetic. As with animal species generally, the collective motivation to preserve the species is greater than the drive to preserve the individual organism.
Where sexuality is present, collective psychology is present. Since dreaming is so closely correlated with sexual arousal, therefore, we must infer that we are having collective dreams to a much larger degree than we previously thought; further we may speculate that the presence of sexuality in our dreams means that our dreams are in some measure preoccupations with the problems of phylogenetic reproduction and phylogenetic extinction (sex and death).
Freudians agree that dreams are sexually based; further, that castration fear is frequently behind the threatening dreams people experience. Orthodox psychoanalysis, however, interprets such castration imagery invariably in "ontogenetic" ways, i.e., as if pertaining only to the individual dreamer, the immediate Oedipal relationships and to current on-going relationships. They do not see such castration imagery collectively, i.e., as "extinction" imagery.
Jungians, on the other hand, interpret dreams often as collective phenomena but, by circumscribing sexuality, do not necessarily see such dreams as related to the reproductive survival of the species.
A recent EEG investigation of REM periods in animals reveals an interesting finding. The amount of time spent in REM during the sleep cycle is greatest for man, followed closely by the chimpanzee, the baboon, and so on.(11) We may speculate that these animals are dreaming during REM as do humans. What is curious in this data is that the time spent in REM is remarkably correlated with the evolutionary sophistication of the species that is dreaming. The more highly developed the species, the longer is the dream period. If the length of dreaming is correlated with the phylogenetic sophistication of the species dreaming, then the dream itself must be, in some way, about the species dreaming. The remarkable constancy of time spent dreaming within species (varying by only a few minutes) suggests that the dreaming is less an individual, ontogenetic phenomenon and more a phylogenetic phenomenon. If dreams were individual, we would expect far more variance in the length of dreaming in any given instance; what we find, however, is that the variance is negligible and that within species dreaming time is relatively constant and invariant.
The fact that sexuality is nearly always an accompanying feature of dreaming, in sum, suggests that the dream has a collective and phylogenetic dimension. The relative constancy of dream cycles within a species similarly points to the species-relatedness of the dream, more than its individual or personal nature. The remark attributed to the poet Ferlinghetti – "I don't dream. Life dreams me." – might be more accurately restated from this analysis as: "I don't dream. The human race dreams me."
As Freud maintained, a dream is a form of dealing with the past, with repressed experiences; it is in a sense a certain form of reminiscence and remembering. It was shown in animals, tested for their retention of a previously learned avoidance response, that a group which was dream-deprived showed greater amnesia and forgetting than a group given electroconvulsive shock following training.(12) This seems to indicate that dreaming is a process of remembering, and that dream interruption and dream deprivation produce forgetting.
What interrupts our dreams and inhibits them from fully retrieving information from our collective past? What, in other words, keeps us amnesiac, forgetful of our past and our prehistory? The answer, of course, is the ego. Whatever else the ego is, it is the guarantor of our individual (ontogenetic) organismic survival; it protects us, defends us, rationalizes for us, alerts us to danger, and wakes us from our sleep at the sound of an intruder. But it makes mistakes! It awakens us from our dreams when we are threatened by fantasies as easily as from real and objective external dangers. A mother can be sleeping and yet discriminate the sound of her newborn's cry from the other room and awaken to minister to its needs. This same mother, however, with the very same ego can dream of two planes colliding in mid-air and awaken with a shriek of intense fear. The former situation with the infant is adaptive, logical, natural, but the interruption of sleep due to an imagined air disaster is absurd, imaginary, unreal. There is no objective reason to explain the air-disaster as sufficiently real to interrupt sleep for natural and adaptive reasons; nonetheless it happens all the time, in every culture, in every corner of the planet and without any physical basis or justification in reality.
In sleep the ego does not behave as if there were a difference between the baby's cry and the imaginary situation; it does not distinguish between fairy tales and facts, surrealistic murders and real intruders, Caesar and Cinderella. If it doesn't make this distinction in our dreams, why should we continually assume the dream is a psychotic, unreal, false, fairy tale. If the ego can be discriminating enough to awaken an individual when there is a real intruder entering the house, is it possible simultaneously to accuse this ego of psychosis when, in the next half hour, it awakens the dreamer when Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall? Perhaps much of the material of dreaming which we have heretofore lumped together as symbolic emotion-laden material, whose relevance is purely idiosyncratic, is, after all, expressing something far more real than we have given it credit for. Perhaps it is something collective, something archaic, something interwoven into a catastrophic theme which expresses (in idiosyncratic ways) a very constant, collective, species-related historical trauma. When we dream of being capsized in a small boat on Lake Michigan, are we recapitulating the Deluge using our own symbolic ornamentation to express the trauma?
Either we accept the notion that the ego is simultaneously both psychotic yet terribly logical, or we are led to the conclusion that when the ego interrupts an apparently absurd and fantastic dream, it is not doing so without some clear and adaptive basis. To think that humanity is collectively dreaming Velikovskian catastrophism into the next century and to suggest that it is waking from these dreams because the ego cannot endure the symbolic representation of racial extinction is novel enough. But, to assert that in preference to "finishing the dream" our collective dreamer prefers to awaken, pick up the morning newspaper, project his unassimilated psychic material, and finish the dream in the stories of catastrophes, disasters, wars, mutilations, and other symbolic representations of extinction may seem extreme.
Indeed, it may appear that this analysis of collective amnesia has taken us to a ludicrous view of psychology, dreaming, history, journalism, and contemporary life in general. And we will be hard pressed to carry on rigid scientific empiricism to validate these hypotheses. Lest, however, the reader become discouraged by the difficulties in proving these ideas, some encouragement can be found by following another maxim of the Gestalt therapists: "Gestalt therapy is being aware of the obvious!" An obvious fact is that our children are singing nursery rhymes without knowing what they mean. And if they can sing "Ring around the rosey, pocket full of posey; ashes, ashes, they all fall down," without realizing that, in this game they are commemorating – and symbolically recapitulating – a phylogenetic catastrophe (the Black Death), then we can find for ourselves some shelter that our concepts are not entirely absurd. Indeed, if humanity experienced similar cataclysms that threatened its survival – and these memories have succumbed to collective amnesia – the memories will have a strong tendency to return, invade our dreams, infect our most objective perceptions, and be commemorated in rhyme and ritual by our children. In spite of their tender age, children have the uncanny ability to remind us continually of truths we would otherwise choose to ignore and forget.
REFERENCES1. Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (N.Y., 1928), p. 198.
2. C. Jung, Psychological Reflections (Princeton, 1973), p. 179.
3. Norman O. Brown, Love's Body (N.Y., 1966), p. 218.
4. Ibid, p.116.
5. C. Jung, Psychological Reflections (Princeton, 1953), p. 45.
6. Brown, op. cit., p. 218.
7. S. Freud, Ego and the Id (London, 1927).
8. M. Kramer, The New Biology of Dreaming (Springfield, 1969).
9. H. Greenhouse and R. Woods, The New World of Dreams (N.Y., 1974).
10. S. Freud, op. cit.
11. A. Dallaire, P. Toutain, and Y. Ruchenhusch, "The Periodicity of REM Sleep: Experimental and Theoretical Implications," Physiology and Behavior, Vol. 13 (1974), pp. 395-400.
12. E. Linden, D. Bern, and W. Fishbein, "Retrograde Amnesia: Prolonging the Fixation Phase of Memory Consolidation by Paradoxical Sleep Deprivation," Physiology and Behavior, Vol. 14 (1975), pp. 409-412.