The Vicissitudes of Totemism: Gérard Lucas explains how our changing view of totemism reflects our own cultural markings

One hundred years after Totem and Taboo

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Although it was the object of numerous publications by ethnologists from the mid-nineteenth century up to the First World War, the age-old practice of totemism, well-known for its quasi-worldwide dissemination and the questions of its origins, seems to have disappeared from anthropological literature thereafter.

The publication in 1913, in Imago, of Freud’s work, Totem and Taboo, and its translation into English in 1918, were initially followed by a silence that was broken first by Boas, and then Kroeber, in 1920. The book had, in fact, met with a certain amount of interest in public opinion.

The opinions of the professionals of the period, regardless of their new theoretical orientations at the time (morphologism, diffusionism, functionalism, culturalism), were critical and hostile, suggesting at the minimum that Freud was behind the times: he was only familiar, it was argued, with the old “evolutionist” ethnology. But publications on the subject of totemism were henceforth rare.

bill-curtsinger-a-large-totem-pole-stands-amid-tall-trees-in-a-mossy-forestC. Lévi-Strauss was one of the few “social anthropologists” to devote a book to him (in 1960), but it was to explain that totemism was an illusion of the Anthropologists — which equally eminent members of the English School of Social Anthropology of Cambridge, South African and Australian, contested energetically in the name of very long field experience (L. Hiatt, 1969 and M. Fortès, 1967), describing the direction adumbrated by Freud’s enquiry as “highly pertinent”.

Those anthropologists who are still interested in this subject today (for example, P. Bidou, B. Juillerat) have nuanced opinions and their knowledge of Freud’s work is sometimes remarkable.

In The Vicissitudes of Totemism: One Hundred Years after Totem and Taboo I have tried to present a non-exhaustive panoramic view of this literature and sought to understand why this profession, which included a number of eminent men, was unable to make use of this book by Freud, as well as those he wrote thereafter. Between the two wars, Freud had turned towards group psychology, law, and power.

Following the massacre of the First World War in Europe, a common feature of the practices of mass murder carried out by anti-Semitic Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia, however different they were, was the horror that made their consequences unrepresentable. More than thirty years passed by before Europeans were able to interest themselves and dwell on the Second World War.

saturn-rocketI have tried to throw light on the unconscious reasons for this delay and on the possible common factors in the malaise of the following generations in the different countries of Europe, which, each in their own way, went through this period.

The highly illustrative example of France, which in turn collaborated with, and then denied for a long time the existence of Soviet gulags in the post-war period, owing to the importance of its communist party and to its left-wing intelligentsia, is given particular consideration.

My working experience of more than 40 years in psychoanalytic psychiatry in the public sector has led me to think that the attitudes of many Europeans towards authority in political and social life, as well as in family life, are the result even today of the political choices of the preceding generations. There is a wish to differentiate themselves from the latter through a logic of “resistance” that believes it has the capacity to restore acts of refusal to them which, unfortunately, they themselves did not make.

The progressive weakening for several centuries in Europe of the customary familial mediations which served to coordinate the different traditional figures of authority from religion to parents, leave those who feel the need for an external support to resignify gender and generational differences feeling at a loss, along with their children. They do not find this support in the culture of today’s society. The persistence of collective and conflictual narcissistic issues in the movements of identification with the functions of the previous generations is such that it is likely, is it not, to have a bearing on the decline of the Oedipus complex and on the establishment of the superego? What we are witnessing, rather, is a decline of the paternal superego without the murderous significations attached to this erasure being worked on within a symbolic context such as that of totemism and its taboos, and without these significations being fully taken on board as in the version of totemism proposed by Freud.


The epistemological situation of Totem and Taboo remains open to debate, but I think that its richness remains in a world where, persuaded that it embodies progress, the West conducts itself as if it had forgotten the strength of the mixed family ties of tribes, casts and religions that are in fact at work in the psychic life of a great number of men and women in the world.

36824Gérard Lucas is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst (honorary training member of the SPP), and former intern of the hospitals of Paris. As a hospital psychiatrist seconded to the A.S.M.13 (Mental Health Association in the 13th district of Paris), he has run different institutions there, including the Alfred Binet Centre from 1978 to 2006. He is the author in particular of three books published by the Editions Sociales and the Press Universitaires de France, and of sixty or so articles published in French and foreign journals.

In 2014, the International Psychoanalytic Association named him vice-president for Europe of its Organizational Committee for Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis.



One thought on “The Vicissitudes of Totemism: Gérard Lucas explains how our changing view of totemism reflects our own cultural markings

  1. Pingback: Paul Marcus on how humour is a serious business, in both therapy and life |

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