A BRIDGE TO HEAVEN:
of the myth of the Tower of Babel can give structure to certain phenomena
we may experience and observe in groups, in particular in large groups and
in organisational life. The
myth itself and its divers psychoanalytic interpretations are considered,
leading to a special examination of the significance of the developmental
phase of adolescence for this dynamic.
Some problems of group analytic technique which may arise when
elements of Babel appear in analytic work are discussed.
Finally, the relevance of the Babel myth for macro-social processes
is viewed in connection with modern progress in science and technology.
1. The Myth
and its Interpretations
Let me begin by relating a personal experience
which brought about the idea for this paper, an experience which had
induced in me strong feelings of shame and isolation.
I had attended a scientific meeting of my psychoanalytic society
where a colleague had given a paper.
Her theme was the significance of the Primal Scene of parental
sexual intercourse and its effects on the inhibition of curiosity in the
small child. After her paper the discussion started and soon took a
disturbing turn. At first the
comments from the audience seemed intent on simply clarifying certain
points, but as the evening progressed I became more and more confused.
It seemed as if these comments were being piled on top of each
other with no really meaningful connection, theoretical concepts were
added to other theoretical concepts, or subtracted from them and placed
somewhere else, until the whole discussion seemed emptied of any emotional
meaning, it had become less and less clear what we were talking about with
each other, and why.
At first I
thought about competitiveness, a sort of know-all mentality of certain
individuals intent on rivalry with one another and on marking out their
own territory, but soon even this idea vanished in the welter of a
mysterious collective process. The
building blocks of theory were gathered up and mounted on one another with
such speed that I experienced a sense of hopelessness and of imminent
collapse, such that I was hardly able to register my own thoughts or
feelings. While I was
searching for an expression to formulate this sensation, one person said:
„You know, intellectualization can be a form of defence against the
Primal Scene.“ Another capped this remark by quoting the title of a recent
posthumously published book of Wilfred Bion, Taming Wild Thoughts. A
third colleague said: „That sounds like a good final comment“, which
the chairman took as a cue to end the meeting, although we had 15 minutes
more time scheduled for discussion. Immediately
the frame was broken, everyone stood up, engaged in social chat or just
went home. I felt isolated
and ashamed that I had been unable to utter a single word and had a strong
but frustrated urge to discuss this premature disruption with someone
else. I felt that we had made
out of our topic a huge pile of abstract theoretical rubble, paradoxically
quite concretistic in its abstraction, being without any symbolic richness - empty talk
really, and we had elevated ourselves so far above ourselves in this empty
talk that no emotional contact was possible, it all simply broke down.
We seemed to have been building a small Tower of Babel.
image stuck in my mind and led me to an examination of the Biblical text
and the Jewish legends which have been woven around it, and later, to ask
where it might appear in the literature on individual and group analysis.
Which versions of, or glosses on, the original myth might elucidate my own
experience and how might such exegesis expand my view of group analytic
technique and of macrosocial processes ?
let us go back to the biblical text, in Genesis, XI:
the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the East, that they
found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said to one another, Go to, let us make bricks, and burn
them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime they had for
mortar. And they said, Go to,
let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and
let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the
whole earth. And the Lord
came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the Lord said, Behold the people is one, and they have all one
language; and this they began to do: and now nothing will be restrained
from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they
may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all
the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel: because the Lord there
did confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord
scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.“
dramatic revenge leaves us here in no doubt that the construction of the
tower constituted the breaking of a taboo.
Leo Stone speaks here of the father’s jealous counter-attack
against the fraternal conspiracy of the primeval horde of his sons (Stone
1979, p.45), while Geza Roheim underlines the sexual symbolism of a
phallic erection culminating in castration (Roheim 1948, p.138).
A woodcut by Franz Masereel shows this plainly (1).
God’s hand with the outstretched finger echoes Michelangelo’s
fresco of the Creation in the Sixtine Chapel (2).
Here God’s finger is a generative phallus which creates Adam, the
first man. In Masereel’s
image the finger becomes a punitive phallus directed against the hubris of
his creatures who wanted to be his equals.
The myth thus
combines several elements - sexual desire,
phantasies of omnipotence and persecution and fragmentation anxieties
- and indicates the
basic problem of the limits of human curiosity, of the desire for
knowledge, the „epistemophilic instinct“, or „K link“ as Bion
later termed it (Bion 1963). We
might add here that the Babel story is the earliest biblical account of a
task-oriented group activity (in
contrast to Noah’s individual construction of the ark) and that it is a
leaderless group, the very first „self-help group“, so to speak.
us make us a name lest we be scattered...“
This passage makes it plain that dispersion and fragmentation do
not arise as a result of divine retribution.
They exist as anxiety phantasies in the minds of the builders prior
to the construction itself, which is in fact built as a defence against
the realization of such phantasies. The
collective task, the name, the identity all form a defence against those
archaic anxieties which Melanie Klein has defined under the
„paranoid-schizoid position“ (Klein 1946), and might indeed have been
successful in this, had not the grandiosity involved brought about
us make a name lest we be scatttered....“
Making oneself a name has connotations of fame and glory, the
realization of a grandiose phantasy, but also of a basic need for a name
as a sign of collective identity. To
achieve group identity via a common task means, in Bion’s terminology,
that this is a „work group“ and thus something other than a collective
phantasy or a „basic assumption“ group (Bion 1963).
Bion’s approach to the Babel myth is ambiguous.
Early on he underlines the positive constructive aspect and the
developmental potential of this first „work group“ in history.
The common language signifies for him the development of a
symbolizing function, of a capacity for creating links.
„Making a name“ is for him the function of the Word, which
combines disparate elements and binds them together.
The angry God who launches an attack on linking and shatters the
common language which enabled cooperation, appears here as a
hyper-moralizing and destructive superego.
Bion seems at this point to be quite on the side of the builders of
Babel (Bion 1952, p.244 and 1992, p.241).
In his later
epistemological writings Bion is concerned with truth as the object of the
drive toward knowledge, truth being the essential nourishment for psychic
health. But for Bion truth
exists outside of ourselves, it is not something we can manufacture or
possess. It is only the lie, the false thought, which requires an
individual liar to create it and to distribute it.
Thus truth requires from us the humility to accept that there is
something valuable beyond our own powers
- whoever does not
accept this, falls victim to a magical omnipotent phantasy.
The truth does not require a thinker to think it. The earth
revolved around the sun before Copernicus and Galilei discovered it,
transference and counter-transference were in existence before Freud
formulated them (Bion 1970).
The desire for
knowledge becomes for Bion an infinite search for truth, to which we can
only approximate, without ever fully reaching it. He now formulates a
common ground for the three great myths of knowledge-seeking, the Fall
from Paradise, the Tower of Babel and the Oedipus story.
In all three there is a forbidden act, punishable through a kind of
castration, a search for knowledge which seeks after godlike omniscience.
In his short paper On
Arrogance (1957) Bion defines a triad of three qualities
- excessive intrusive
curiosity, arrogance and stupidity -
which he later combines as -K, the negative of knowledge. -K
attacks knowledge in various ways, by concretizing it as something one
could possess, or relativizing it and thus denying any possibility of
objective truth. Instead of
an approach via intersubjective understanding, we find here a
materialistic „idolization“ of one’s own monosubjective so-called
in fact, a lie. Genuine truth arises out of an object relationship
and is therefore concerned for the object, whereas the lie denies the
subjectivity of the object und thus has no concern for it. Intrusive
curiosity, which desires to know everything without regard for the object,
is a combination of greed and arrogance.
Its self-destructive aspect reveals the underlying stupidity behind
such a desire for knowledge without regard for the consequences (Bion
1970). Thus, in his
posthumously published memoir All My Sins Remembered, we find Bion taking quite a different
attitude towards Babel:
am: therefore I question. It
is the answer -
the „yes, I know“ - that is the disease which kills.
It is the Tree of Knoweldge which kills.
Conversely, it is not the successful building of the Tower of
Babel, but the failure that gives life, initiates and nourishes the energy
to live, to grow, to flourish.“ (Bion 1991, p.52)
Amati-Mehler’s comprehensive work The Babel of the Unconscious seems to share Bion’s concerns, when
she states: „Like the major myths
of Oedipus and of the Lost Paradise, the myth of Babel is two-sided.
On the ‘progressive’ side, the myth postulates an impossibility
- in our case it means
the exclusion of universal communication. On the ‘regressive’ side, it
reconstructs in the imagination an ideal state which once existed but is
actually lost -
an original mythical unity which gives rise to the narcissistic
claim of total communication. Each
of these myths actually affirms the need for exile and
separation/castration as a sine qua non condition
for future knowledge .... Babel represents the moment when detachment from
what is similar to us takes place. It
thus corresponds to that crucial core for individual development in which - starting from
the original fusional situation -
separation, individuation and differentiation are experienced at a
mental level.“ (Amati-Mehler et.al.1993, pp. 14-18)
one of the first analysts to work with large groups, added to Bion’s
three basic assumptions - dependence, fight-flight and pairing - a fourth,
which he called Oneness, a
phantasma of fusion which makes the members of a large group act as though
they could speak with one collective voice, as though the large group
could conduct its own monologue. When
the phantasma of fusion is shattered, the result is collective confusion. (Turquet 1974).
his stimulating book The Group and
the Unconscious Didier Anzieu discusses a triple biblical myth, of
Paradise Lost, the Tower of Babel and Pentecost, and suggests that God has
to be dead before men can understand one another, despite the difference
in language. He states „that the primal scene constructed ex post facto to explain the origin
of the law on which the group is founded is thus a scene not of sexual
relations but of collective murder...the murder of one individual, who
symbolizes the will to dominate, lies at the origin of the rules of social
and cultural life, providing this murder is followed by identification on
the part of the murderers or their descendents with the dead Father, now
realized and turned into an internalized, impersonal law.“ (Anzieu 1984,p.39) .
If we now turn to look at where the Babel story
appears in Genesis, we see that there are only three narratives which
precede it. First the expulsion from the Garden, then Cain’s murder of
Abel, and then the Flood. After
that there is Babel, and after Babel, Abraham.
With Adam and
Eve’s Fall, God remarks that man is now like unto God in that he knows
the difference between Good and Evil (Genesis 3, 22).
This newly won ability to discriminate, this increase in
understanding is the origin of the feeling of guilt.
In the Cain-and-Abel story however, the guilt over the murderous
deed is at first denied and the mendacious identity of the perpetrator is
continued in his subsequent self-identification with the victim.
In the following narrative Noah is left as the sole living person
able to discriminate between good and evil and thus to choose the truth
and for this he is saved from destruction and can save mankind.
But this peculiar formation of his individual conscience is not yet
codified and anchored as a social law for all.
The Flood would seem to represent a collective inundation by
depressive anxieties because of seemingly irreparable guilt.
This motif of sinking into the depths is then followed by the
monumental erection of the Tower which thus appears as a collective manic
defence against depressive guilt.
then on to Abraham we see a development from concretistic to symbolic
thought process. The Tower is
a concrete surrogate phallus created by a monologic group under the sway
of a phantasma of fusion. The
collapse of the Tower heralds the advent of dialogic or polylogic symbolic
thinking, with different internal and external languages, whose common
denominator is now only in their symbolic function. Modern linguistics
give us here much food for thought -
for example, Roman Jakobson’s formula that languages do not
differ according to what they can or cannot express, but only according to
what they compel or do not compel one to say (Jakobson 1962).
And Mikhail Bakhtin in his studies on the unity and diversity of
discourse sees the human being as a heterogeneous being, polylingual in
that he is full of inner voices, existing and attaining the unity of his
individual identity only in an actual or presumed dialogue with the other.
Life is for Bakhtin dialogic by nature
- „Living means taking
part in dialogue - asking, listening, replying, agreeing.“
(Bakhtin, in Amati-Mehler 1993, p.277).
collapse of the Tower also marks the end of pre-history and the beginning
of the history of the Jews as a people.
The covenant with God is established through circumcision, a
symbolic rather than a concrete castration, a token that the father,
whether heavenly or earthly, is now prepared to renounce the power to
castrate or kill his sons - thus leaving them with no good reason to kill
or castrate him.
with Abraham makes it possible that Noah’s individual good conscience
can now become, as in Kant’s categorical imperative, a common rule of
law for all. God too is now
changed. He is no longer the
product of splitting plus projective identification
- an idealized fusion
with heavenly power on the one hand and a primitive, vengefully sadistic
superego on the other. Now he
appears as a guiding and benevolent superego which can establish a
positive communicative link with the ego.
biblical text, let us look at some of the Jewish legends and glosses on
this myth (Ginzburg 1909, Bin
Gorion 1997). Here we find
that the Tower was by no means the work of a self-help group, but
instigated by Nimrod, King of Shinar, „the mighty hunter before the
Lord“, who was in possession of the fur garments which God had given to
Adam after the expulsion from Eden. Nimrod
had fashioned for himself a seat created after the likeness of God’s
throne and it was his counsellors who advised him to build the tower.
600.000 people were employed in the task. It was a rebellion
against God and there were, we also learn, three main groups of rebels.
The first group wished to climb to heaven to make war on God and to
occupy his throne; the second group wished to set up their own idols in
the place of God and worship them; the third group wished to storm the
heavens and destroy them with spears and arrows.
process of building the tower took many years, indeed a whole year was
needed to climb to the top. This
meant that the bricks became more valuable than human lives, since it
mattered little if a human fell to his death, but if a brick fell, all
began to wail in mourning, since it would take a whole year to replace it.
The women helped in the work and if they bore children, they would
immediately bind the child in a cloth to their bodies in order to lose no
time in forming the bricks. The
destruction of the tower came about through the confusion of language, and
not the other way round. Suddenly
no-one could understand what the other had said.
One man asked for mortar and another gave him a brick - in a rage he threw the brick back at him and killed him.
Many died in this fashion. The
builders were punished according to their motives for rebellion.
Those who had wished to place their own idols in heaven were
changed into apes and phantoms. Those
who had wished to destroy the heavens fell to killing each other until
none survived. Those who had
wished to compete with God and to expel him from his throne were
themselves dispersed all over the world.
It is said that God then sent down seventy angels, each of whom
taught each group its own language.
reading tells us that the intent of the builders was in one sense good.
For they saw that the peoples of the earth were ruled by angels,
stars and planets and they wished to escape this rule and be protected and
governed solely by the glory of the one supreme God, that the Holy Spirit
- Bion’s „objective
truth“ ? -
might come over them. This
was a good intention, if mistaken. They
wished to set up an image that possessed the power of the ineffable name
of God, which should prophesy to them what was to come and give them
this they should do, this they should not do. It is written that when the Messiah of the House of David
comes and conquers all peoples, the Tower of David will make good that
which the Tower of Babel had despoiled.
(This theme incidentally is elaborated, in connection with the
coming of Jesus, by the baroque mystic Jakob Boehme and in another
contrasting way in the speech of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The
God’s punishment of Babel was not so severe as
his punishment by the Flood. For
the generation of the Flood had fallen to pillaging and raping one
another, whereas the generation of the Tower, though arrogant and
blasphemous, had shown cooperation, by working with one another in peace.
The fate of the Tower itself was also threefold.
The lower part of it sank into and was swallowed by the earth, the
upper part of it was destroyed by fire from above, while the third part
remained standing as a ruin. It
is also said that a passer-by who comes to gaze on this ruin immediately
forgets everything he has ever known.
threefold destruction of the Tower can be seen as a psychoanalytic
metaphor for the fate of grandiose omnipotent phantasies which have been
shattered by the reality principle - some of these phantasies sink into the Unconscious, where
they retain some of their power, some are utterly consumed and
obliterated, while some remain in the conscious mind, as a kind of
monument to the infantile past. Any
conscious fixation on such phantasies of omnipotence must however confound
and make useless all the fruits of learning from experience.
meanings of adolescence
The crucial phase of individual development where
such narcissistic phantasies receive an additional boost from awakened
sexual drives is adolescence. The
separation/individuation process of the small child, which Amati-Mehler
stresses in her comment on the Babel myth, and which Margaret Mahler and
her co-workers so cogently describe, is repeated and renewed in
adolescence, where a „second chance“, as Eissler has called it, is
given to modify the original process (Eissler 1978).
Adolescents take leave of the oedipal constrictions of family life
to go out toward society at large, at first usually via the formation of
same-sex peer groups, cliques or gangs, which offer a collective reservoir
for their heightened narcissism, visions of grandeur and utopian longings.
Here the adolescent is not only concerned with his adaptation to
existing society, but with dreams, plans and projects to change society
into a utopia -
a lost paradise.
in his impressive ethnopsychoanalytic study The
Social Production of Unconsciousness (1984),
underlines the underestimated importance of this developmental phase
in clinical literature. Without
due concern for the adolescent experiences of our patients, we can hardly
expect major structural personality changes to come about.
For if the transference-countertransference relationship only
serves to reproduce the patterns of infantile neurosis, if the
narcissistic rebellion, the heightened drive energy and the grandiose
transcendent phantasies of adolescence remain silent and deferent in the
treatment, how many chances are lost ?
What potential for change can come out of such an analysis ?
can bring crisis or even breakdown in individual development.
Erdheim defines three types of disturbed development in this phase
of life: a) a frozen adolescence which, by freezing up the inner conflicts, makes
the ego rigid, while the superego maintains its dominance from the latency
period. The consequences of
this position are a basically depressive disposition, often defended
against by various forms of religiosity, a conservative emphasis on
tradition and a failure to separate from the family.
Frozen adolescence causes problems of adaptation, due to the
melancholic introversion it engenders, which „goes against the grain“
(Erdheim 1984, p.319).
The b) shattered
adolescence arises when the grandiose omnipotent phantasies are broken
up, and their fragments encapsulated in conformistic parts of the ego. The
consequences are an identification with social roles (which does not
prevent work from being experienced as determined by outside forces),
while even rapid social climbing does not compensate for the shattered
grandiose phantasies, or for the unconscious fixation on the family of
origin and its values. However
this „yuppie“-style does try in a shadowy way to give structure and to
mediate between infantile and adult conflicts, thus permitting a certain
amount of defence and adaptation.
third type c) of burnt-out
adolescence is the most disturbed. The
maturational processes continue to accelerate, but under the influence of
early traumatization it is the „second chance“ of adolescence which
burns out, the possibility to take part as an adult in the surrounding
culture and to change it. Emotional
intensity, a heightened capacity for awareness and abstract
conceptualization are often, even excessively, present, but remain under
the sway of a particularly destructive, anti-social attitude.
(Erdheim here cites the case of Otto Weininger as an example.)
three types seem familiar to us from the Babel myth, from the fate not
only of the tower itself, shattered, burnt out and frozen in the earth,
but of the rebellious builders themselves. The „burnt-out cases“ resemble those destroyers of the
maternal breast who end up killing each other or themselves, the
„shattered“ adolescents might seem like the „apes and phantoms“
who play ghostlike social roles but remain alienated from their inner
lives, while the melancholy „frozen“ ones seem to have taken the
punishment upon themselves of isolation and expulsion, submitting to the
traditional religious authority.
the reactivation and working-through of the crises of adolescence not only
as a central lever for allowing the patient to separate creatively from
the transference relationship, but also as a key to understanding a basic
antagonism between the family unit and its surrounding culture. „The concept of culture,“ he writes, „subsumes everything to do with mobility: the development of the
forces of production, new societal forms which lead from tribe to nation
to cultural entity and finally to humanity as a whole
- but also the
production of new universal symbolic systems which make an
over-encompassing communication possible.
Freud contrasts this concept of culture with a concept of the
family that contains those forces which resist cultural mobility.
Family is that which tends toward closing itself off incestuously,
which hinders individuals in developing new dependencies on strange and
foreign entities and instead strengthens the old inner dependencies
- but family also
mediates the warmth and shelter of that to which we are already
vicissitudes of early childhood experience in the family are the
precondition for the formation and maintenance of social institutions, for
continuity during change. Adolescence
as the phase in which such early experiences become fluid again, in which
the newly awakened narcissism becomes linked in unique fashion with fresh
object hunger, is a precondition for humans to make
their own history -
not only to transmit extant institutions, but also to transform
Let us here
consider Lévi-Strauss’ differentiation between „hot“ and „cold“
cultures (Lévi-Strauss 1960, 1962). Cold, traditional cultures try to
minimize changes in their structure.
Ancestor worship guarantees business as usual, rituals are
celebrated which maintain the eternal return of a cyclic seasonal time
pattern, and adolescence - whose „Sturm-und-Drang“ potential could shatter the
social order - is reined in and acculturated, often through painful
initiation rites (such as circumcision !) which ensure that the youngsters
symbolically submit to their tribal elders.
Hot cultures like our own push their own mobility onward:
technological progress, accumulation and investment of capital and the
increasing differentiation of power structures support this tendency.
In such cultures we find a protracted adolescence, where young
people bereft of initiation rites are often left to themselves over many
years without orientation, when they either capitulate under the weight of
the conflicts in their surrounding culture or manage to give it a new
developmental thrust (Erdheim 1984).
It would seem that one function of the Babel myth could be to
expose certain tendencies which force a cold culture to change into a hot
one and to cut them short.
I hope it is now clear why I take such pains to
stress Erdheim’s model of adolescence in connection with the Babel myth.
He is telling us the other side of the story, that development
takes place in a tension between adaptation and acculturation on the one
hand, and rebellion and utopian longings on the other. Nimrod rebels
against God’s authority while Abraham submits to it, Abraham who is the
father of Jews and Moslems alike -
and the word Islam itself denotes submission. We have in us both Nimrod
and Abraham, the narcissist and the depressive, and it is no help for us
to idealize one at the expense of the other.
If we are inclined to see the goal of psychoanalysis in achieving
or even idealizing the „depressive position“, we then rob our patients
and the method itself of its revolutionary impetus.
3. Some ideas on group analytic technqiue
would suggest that in therapeutic groups we may find three types of
dysfunctional communication, or even of empty talk, which make particular
demands on the conductor. I
will define them as „centripetal“, „centrifugal“ and
„vertical“ communication. (The idea of „empty talk“ relates of
course to Kant’s famous dictum, which Bion was fond of quoting: „An
intuition without a concept is blind, a concept without an intuition is
communication I would consider as blind talk.
It is usually emotionally highly charged and seems to gravitate
toward a nodal point of feeling in the group, a common basic assumption
perhaps, or central emotional complex, around which the group becomes
stuck. The conductor’s task
here seems to me to lie in becoming aware of a „selected fact“ which
can make a concept about what is happening available to the group.
In general, a correct interpretation of transference will give the
group a concept that can help participants move on to a subjective
examination of their own individual contributions to the phenomenon.
communication is a situation where empty concepts devoid of emotional
meaning, but not necessarily destructive by nature, tend to disperse the
group’s attention into a kind of intellectualized outward-flowing mental
fog, which gradually gives rise to fragmentation anxieties where
participants may feel the ground slipping away from under their feet.
Again the conductor’s task here is to work on the transference
relationship, but the type of interpretation offered should avoid becoming
part of the overall trend toward intellectual conceptualization.
Rather, one is called upon to be sensitive to the intuitive
emotionality of one’s own counter-transference as conductor, since the
group has usually deposited into the conductor’s person, via projection,
some emotional difficulty from which they are fleeing.
Vertical communication is a special case of the
centrifugal, it strives upward and exhibits a self-exalting grandiose
tendency with implicit destructive impulses toward the authority of
experiential learning. In
therapeutic groups where speech rather than action is the accepted
currency, the phantasma of omnipotence gives way to one of omniscience, to
the „know-all“ mentality. Because the conductor’s authority is being heavily, if only
implicitly, challenged -
the group is now playing at being God
- the danger is that
the conductor may take revenge through sadistic interpretations, intending
to deflate the group’s grandiosity by over-asserting his own authority
and idealizing the virtues of dependency and the depressive position.
As a rule, if we just let this vertical communication run its
course, it will tend to collapse under its own weight, usually resulting
in a long embarrassed silence, with feelings of shame and disorientation
among the participants, perhaps with glimmers of hope that the conductor
will somehow be able to pick up the pieces.
A positive tendency comes into play when individual voices
recognize the collective shame and begin to speak out of the communicative
rubble in a new, emotional way to one another, rather than
intellectualizing over each other’s heads
- and over the conductor’s, naturally.
communication, the Tower-of-Babel structure proper, seems to occur mostly
in large group settings.resembles. In
the small analytic group, which is closer to the oedipal family model of
intimacy, we tend to find only the ruins of the tower, the babble of
voices talking at cross purposes. An interesting example is mentioned by
Morris Nitsun in his book The
Anti-Group. He describes
„highly confused states in the
group where the point at issue was drowned in a sea of babbling and angry
tongues, rather like the Tower of Babel analogy mentioned...“ and he
sees these phenomena as manifestations of the „anti-group“(Nitsun
1996, p.78, 82). However the
mixed metaphor here employed suggests that drowning in a „sea of
tongues“ is more closely connected to the myth of the Flood than to that
of Babel. The motif of
utopian adolescent rebellion is absent in this example.
Such states, if they are not a direct result of a previous
„vertical communication“, would seem to be more related to unbearable
guilt feelings due to murderous impulses than to any creative narcissistic
assume that it is the small group’s more available potential space for
intimacy which tends to check the tendency of grandiose phantasies to
build a Tower, as if the small group could at best (or worst ?) only
exhibit the scattered fragments of a disaster.
It resembles the remains of a collapsed unconscious messianic
phantasy of salvation which had no hope of expression in the structure of
the original family unit, shattered before it could elevate itself from
the ground. Whereas the small
group which becomes dysfunctional in this way exhibits only the fragments
of a past, unseen catastrophe, it is the large group which lets us observe
the cyclical return of the whole construction, destruction and
reconstruction of Babel Tower, the collective work on a phallic erection,
a monumental unification of the grandiose phantasies, murderous impulses,
sexual desires and utopian longings of adolescence.
4. Babel structures in the age of scientific and
Finally I wish to discuss briefly some social
aspects of this phenomenon - in the intellectual field, the fragmentation of the
Enlightenment tradition of Modernism in the postmodern relativization of
knowledge, and in the field of science and technology, genetic science
(and in particular the Human Genome Project) and the Internet or World
word „Aufklärung“ has a variety of meanings, including the
Enlightenment as the Humanistic project of orienting society towards a
critical search for Truth. It
also denotes the surveillance activity of spy plane flights to reveal
enemy installations („Aufklärungsflüge“), a paranoid mode of gaining
knowledge. In a third meaning it denotes the activity of telling children
about the sexual facts of life. It
may be such unconscious sexual drives and paranoid anxieties, generated
through the primal scene, which fuel the postmodern relativization of all
knowledge and the „deconstruction of the subject“ and aim to topple
the lofty project of the Enlightenment.
However this occurs at a time when the project itself has become
unstable, where „Enlightenment“ can be reduced to „scientific
knowledge“, which itself has become highly abstract and removed from the
sensual emotional foundation of human relationships.
But signs are on the wall that mankind is not about to give up its
quest for „theories of everything“ and for a universal networking of
Genome Project, the current attempt at a comprehensive cartography of the
genetic structure of the human race, is such a sign.
This project comes with a hope of healing illness, perhaps even old
age, perhaps even death - those three
inevitable generators of Suffering which drove the Buddha to his own
search for enlightenment. But
it brings in its shadow the paranoid anxieties that can be inflamed by the
prospect of a total monitoring of one’s personal genetic material for
surveillance use, and the messianic idea of conquering death by cloning,
thus dispensing finally with sexual reproduction as the sole source of
life or hope for immortality.
Internet, or World Wide Web, demonstrates a phantasma of a universal
bringing together of human knowledge into the virtual realm of cyberspace.
Here new visions are born. In
his Declaration of Independence of
Cyberspace John Perry Barlow announces:
of the industrial world, tired giants of flesh and steel, I come from
Cyberspace, the new home of the spirit...I declare the global social
realm, which we are founding, to be utterly independent of the tyranny
which you intend to impose on us....Cyberspace is a natural form and grows
through our collective activity....our world is everywhere and nowhere,
and it is not there, where bodies live.
We are creating a world which all can enter without privilege or
prejudice toward race, class, military power or ethnic origin...“ (Barlow
with this information technology there is the constant anxiety about the
„big crash“, there is the history of the internet (which began as a
military installation), and its current notoriety for distributing child
abuse pornography. From my
own experience with e-mail discussion groups I know how double-sided this
medium can be. On the one hand, an atmosphere of common cooperation,
generosity and helpfulness can be generated which seems utopian, even
ecstatic, compared to our direct daily social environments (and is
generally indulged in at their expense !).
On the other hand quite sudden primitive regressions take place,
„flame wars“ in which people who have never met set out to destroy
each other verbally to an extent which makes it plain that virtual
networking has one prime psychic source
- a collectivization
of projective identification (Holland 1993, Young 1996a, 1996b). It seems
perhaps a necessary evil of mankind, but certainly a long shot from
have appeared indicating that long-term use of the internet induces
increased social isolation and depressive mood swings in the majority of
test persons. Then again,
critics of these studies say that the new medium needs getting used to.
First experiences with the glut of such wide-ranging and very
intimate contacts could result in an initial insight into how isolated and
limited one’s life had been hitherto. In time we
could surmount the depression that follows such insight and begin to use
the medium creatively. I
would reserve judgment on this point and note that the extreme euphoric
and negative attributions to this new medium remind one of the extreme
mood swings of adolescence, which also, in all its attempts at
„mastery“, is still very much a virtual world.
the euphoria engendered by scientific and technological progress we can
easily fall prey to what Emmanuel Lévinas has termed „the temptation of
temptation“, when he says: „in
our opinion, the pure development of consciousness and of the
investigative mind, when they become their own raison-d’etre, are the
temptation of temptation itself, crooked paths which lead into the
abyss“. In a preceding
passage, Lévinas also writes:
task is not simply to transform action into a kind of understanding, but
to introduce a kind of knowledge that contains a deep structure of
subjectivity. But we can also
see whither this logical integration of subjectivity can lead us
- toward a direct
relationship with the Truth, without any prior testing of its contents or
in other words, the reception of a Revelation can only be the
relationship to a person, to the Other.
The Torah is given to
us in the glory of the face of the Other...and becoming aware of the other
is simultaneously a commitment towards the other person.“ (A.T., Lèvinas
1993, pp. 61-95).
Klein was nevertheless right to point out the value of the experience of
omnipotent phantasies, for they give us hope for the future that we may
find our way again out of depression, however deep it may become.
Perhaps it is part and parcel of human nature, despite all the
warnings of the wise, to return ever again to the indulgent euphoria of
adolescence, to the phantasma of Oneness, and ever again to try to rebuild
the Tower, in the hope that this time it should be of David, not of Babel.
We know from the study of cyclothymic disturbances that
introspection and insight are only possible in the transitional phase from
mania to depression.
Only in this transition, in many such transitions, can we approach
an intersubjective Truth and not succumb to a collective projective
identification which desires to possess a kind of knowledge so powerful
that it dissolves not only the awareness of the Other, but also all
the composer Witold Lutoslawski has remarked: „the
musical culmination is a collective phenomenon
- but the way out of
the climax is an individual one.“
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Felix de Mendelssohn was born in London. He now works as a psychoanalyst and group analyst in Vienna.
He lectures at the Vienna Academy of Social Work and at Salzburg
University and is currently engaged in a long-term project of Group
Analytic training with Ukrainian psychiatrists and psychotherapists in
L’viv and Kiev. In May 2000 he will be giving the Foulkes’ Memorial
Lecture of the Group Analytic Society, London, on „The Aesthetics of the
Political in Group Analytic Process“.
 Of course I thought here about the personal experience which I mentioned at the beginning. If the Babel at the scientific meeting of my society were such a phenomenon, it might explain why the chairman closed the meeting before the scheduled ending, thus taking his revenge for the symbolic murder of his authority.
 Psychoanalytically speaking, the first group shows an oedipal desire to displace the paternal phallus in order to cohabit with the mother undisturbed, the second group’s narcissistic project was to set up idealized selfobjects in the place of the paternal phallus, while the third and most destructive group wished simply to attack and ruin the maternal breast.
 Anyone who has the magic of Dylan Thomas’ poem Fern Hill ringing in his ears will remember the verse: „And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman“ - huntsman and herdsman, that is Nimrod and Abraham in one.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM