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by Felix de Mendelssohn


Aspects 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.

    The 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 ?


Now let us go back to the biblical text, in Genesis, XI:

    And 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.“

    God’s 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.

    „Let 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 downfall.

    „Let 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 „truth“  -  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:

    „I 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)

    Jacqueline 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, pp. 14-18)

    Pierre Turquet, 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). 

In 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) [1]. 




    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.

    From Babel 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).

The 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.

    God’s deal 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.

    Leaving the 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.[2]

The 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.

Another 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 orders  -  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 Brothers Karamazov.)


    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. 

This 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.


2.   The 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.

    Mario Erdheim, 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 ?

    Adolescence 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.

    However the 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.)

    Now these 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.

    Erdheim sees 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 accustomed.“

    The 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 them.

    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.[3]  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


I 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 empty“.)

    Centripetal 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.

    Centrifugal 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.

    Vertical 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 challenge.

I 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 technological progress


    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 Wide Web.

    The German 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 information resources.

    The Human 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.

    Finally the 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:

    „Governments 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 1996).

    Nevetheless, 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 salvation !

    Recent studies 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.


In 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:

    Our 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 conceptualization  -  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).


    Melanie 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 Self-awareness. 

As 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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                   Young, Robert M. (1996b): Primitive Processes On The                                                 Internet.



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“.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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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