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Parsons, M. (2005). Mankind's Attempt to Understand Itself: Psychoanalysis and Its Relation to Science and Religion. Fort Da, 11(2):18-33.

(2005). Fort Da, 11(2):18-33

Mankind's Attempt to Understand Itself: Psychoanalysis and Its Relation to Science and Religion

Michael Parsons, MRC, Psych

It is Thursday, September 5th, 1901. Freud has finally come to Rome, and on this fourth day of his visit he is gazing at Michelangelo's statue of Moses (Jones, 1955, p. 17ff). Twelve years later, he will write a paper about it, which begins with a confession of his difficulty in appreciating works of art (Freud, 1914, p. 211ff). He is more interested in their subject matter, he says, than in their artistic qualities. He can only enjoy them if he can find an explanation, in his own terms, for his response to them. But there is no denying the effect on him that these ‘inscrutable’ (his word) creations do have. Of the Moses he writes:

No piece of statuary has ever made a stronger impression on me than this. How often have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero's glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned — the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols. (Freud, 1914, p. 213)

Freud conveys the statue's effect on him by offering this unusually personal, highly coloured evocation of the fantasies it aroused. A page earlier he has speculated whether the viewer has to be in a state of intellectual bewilderment for a work of art to achieve its effect. He says, ‘It is only with the greatest reluctance that I could bring myself to believe in any such necessity’ (Freud, 1914, p. 212). He did not like the intellectually bewildered state to which he felt reduced by the Moses, and, in the deliberately artistic style of the passage I quoted, we may see both identification and


1 The original version of this paper was presented on July 29th, 2000, at the 5th Delphi International Psychoanalytic Symposium, whose theme was ‘Self-Knowledge Before and After Freud’.

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