Tuesday, January 06, 2004
The Phallacy of Genesis: A Feminist-Psychoanalytic Approach
Book reviews -- The Phallacy of Genesis: A Feminist-Psychoanalytic Approach by Ilona N. Rashkow
Williams, James G
ILONA N. RASHKOW, The Phallacy of Genesis: A Feminist-Psychoanalytic Approach (Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993). Pp. 144. Paper $14.99.
Rashkow draws upon Sigmund Freud's work, particularly as revised by Jacques Lacan and others, in order to give her own feminist reading of certain biblical texts. The highlighted texts are Gen 12:10-20 and Gen 20:1-18.
The author's revised Freudian approach focuses on transference, dream theory, and seduction hysteria. Transference is the analysand's or patient's unconscious "transfer" of conflicts onto the analyst or doctor. These conflicts have basically to do with repressed sexuality. The model of dream interpretation emphasizes censorship, displacement, and condensation as the dream work moves from latent to manifest form. Freud's seduction theory began with his early inference that hysterical symptoms stem from childhood sexual abuse. However, he soon rejected this position and articulated the hypothesis of the "Oedipus complex." R. does not discuss the ongoing and sometimes inconsistent character of Freud's reflections on the Oedipus complex, but after almost thirty years he arrived at the clear position that desire for the parent of the opposite sex is inherent, biogenetic, it would seem, and this innate desire precedes even identification with the model parent of the same sex. The Oedipus theory, already in its early form in the 1890s, was the theoretical basis for holding that hysteria was occasioned not by actual sexual abuse, but by the repressed sexual desire for the putative abusing parent. R., in keeping with many current studies, sees Freud's shift as an expression of his own "phallocentrism," a phallocentrism that is shared with the biblical texts.
One example of the way the author uses these elements of Freudian theory is her reader-response approach to the dream of Abimelech in Genesis 20. Abimelech rejects the idea of sexual intercourse with Sarah as if it never occurred to him at all. But this is only the manifest scenario whose latent core is his desire for Sarah and fear of Abraham (p. 62). An instance of implementation of the seduction theory is the discussion of Genesis 2-3. The prohibition of the fruit on the tree of knowledge of good and evil "forbids Eve, the daughter, from obtaining the father's potency and privilege" (p. 78). But she rebels, and at her instigation, the son, Adam, loses his perpetual security. The burden of R.'s readings as a whole is that in "biblical narratives, as in Freud, female sexuality is subordinated to and subsumed by the male"(p. 108).
The author gives an "afterwards" which briefly responds to the question, Why read my readings? (pp. 110-11). There are four points: (1) because there is no absolutely true reading, all readings, including her feminist reading, can coexist; (2) the Hebrew Bible is approached as a single literary work; (3) the approach is literary: "The literary text is considered as a body of language to be interpreted, while psychoanalysis is a body of knowledge used to interpret"(p. 111); (4) we invest the Scriptures with our own cluster of wishes, which has something to do with our everyday relations with people around us.
Each of these points, however, has a flip side which could be pernicious. (1) If there is no absolutely true reading that could be recognized in principle, and if every reading is as "authentic" as every other, then all readings could be at war with one another-unless there is a political consensus to accept all of them and avoid offending anyone. This is one of the chief factors in "political correctness." (2) Approaching the Hebrew Bible as a literary text means one approaches it as if it is not canonical Scripture. But then why be interested in it at all? Is it really great "literature"? The answer must be rooted in history and historical community (which tellingly qualifies the literary approach) or in serendipity. (3) Psychoanalysis is not just a body of knowledge used to interpret but, like the Bible, is also body of language to be interpreted. To disguise this fact is to ignore that Freud and Lacan really attempt to save a subject or self by means of the unconscious as the dwelling place of the Other. They must see human origins and development as inherently conflictual. Freud himself conceived of a "death instinct," a new myth for explaining human self-destructiveness, (4) There is no explicit connection between self and community that is articulated in R.'s assumptions and approach. Without a real basis for human community, one's own cluster of wishes and everyday relations could simply lead to conflict and violence. Which brings us back to our first point about "political correctness," "multiculturalism," and the like, being thin and fragile veils over the abyss of war.
In short, there are interesting readings in this book, and some valid points about biblical patriarchy, but the author's assumptions contradict and undermine her own case. If "the Hebrew Bible makes phallocentrism synonymous with logocentrism" (p. 109)--and logocentrism was already bad enough, according to Heidegger and Derrida--then why bother with it? To discard it? If it speaks only with a male voice and witnesses only to a male God concerned about a male people and about male victims, then we have inherited nothing but a long past of deceit and oppression, and we can blame our forebears for the present sorry state of things. But that is a position that sells the biblical birthright for a bowl of multicultural stew.
Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Apr 1995
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Posted by lmurx at 2:16 PM